**** 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 Theater

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.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

 

 

ProductionHand to God
Written byRobert Askins
Directed byChris Ginesi
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theater Co.
Production DatesThru Nov. 11th
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
Overall4.5/5
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.

 

ProductionHello, Dolly
Written byBook by Michael Stewart, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru Oct. 21st
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$28 – $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

 

**** 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.

 

ProductionOslo
Written byJ.T. Rogers
Directed byJasson Minadakis
Producing CompanyMarin Theater Company (MTC)
Production DatesThru Oct. 28th
Production AddressMarin Theater Co.
397 Miller Ave.
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone415.388.5200
Tickets$25 – $52
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
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.

 

ProductionDetroit '67
Written byDominique Morisseau
Directed byDarryl V. Jones
Producing CompanyAurora Theater Co.
Production DatesThru Oct. 7th
Production AddressAurora Theater Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone510.843.4822
Tickets$33 – $65
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
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 about a voter trying her earnest best to participate in democracy in the face of increasingly impossible requirements. Directed by Mary Ann Rogers, veteran professional actor Richard Farrell is superb as a no-nonsense worker enforcing the rules at a polling station. Alicia Stamps is his match as a would-be voter baffled by the obstacle course she must overcome simply to cast a ballot.

Amelia Adams … a trained clown with deep experience in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition … engages the audience fully and never falters.

Another great sketch is Cleavon Smith’s “On the Precipice.” Directed by Melanie Bandera-Hess, the piece features three stoners (Lorenzo Angelo Gonzales, Howard Johnson Jr., and Tesia Bell) who appear ready to do their citizens’ duty until their motivation gets derailed by too much weed. The show’s only piece with a personal responsibility theme, “On the Precipice” is a humorous cautionary tale that should be taken to heart by a wide swath of the politically disenchanted.

The Demos Kratos Theatro cast.

The high point of “Demos Kratos Theatro” is Amelia Adams’s recurring appearances as campaigning politician Sal Monella—a sleazeball self-promoter from New Jersey by way of Chicago. A trained clown with deep experience in the Commedia dell’Arte tradition, Adams engages the audience fully and never falters even at moments when it’s clear she’s improvising. Her hilarious act alone is worth the trip to Taylor Street.

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.

 

ProductionDêmos Krátos Theátro: Plays By and For the People
Written byVarious
Directed byVarious
Producing CompanyUtopia Theatre Project
Production DatesThru Oct. 6th on selected dates.
Production AddressPianoFight
144 Taylor St.
San Francisco, CA
Websitehttp://www.utopiatheatreproject.com
TelephoneN/A
Tickets$12.50 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft2.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!---

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! Brilliant, Incisive “Savage Wealth” at Main Stage West – by Barry WIllis

Sebastopol’s Main Stage West new season is off to a roaring start with “Savage Wealth,” a world premiere of Bob Duxbury’s brilliant, incisive comedy.

In it, very unlike brothers Gabe and Todd (Matt Cadigan and Peter T. Downey) scheme to sell their family home with a view of Lake Tahoe but encounter unanticipated complications with their neighbor and childhood friend Beenie (Ilana Niernberger, in a fantastic performance), who owns the vacant lot immediately in front of the brothers’ home.

…a rarity, especially for a community theater troupe: a brilliant script brilliantly performed…

Todd is a hard-charging and deeply cynical political consultant and lobbyist, while Gabe is a contemplative unemployed slacker. Trustfunder Beenie spends her time flitting from ashram to spa to spiritual retreat and has an extensive repertoire of New Age practices that she unleashes on the brothers, in a not-fully-thought-out attempt to resolve their disputes and to get her own needs met. Roxbury’s script hits all the right notes, with plenty of potshots at a particularly Northern California style of pretension.

Director John Shillington extracts hilarious ensemble work from this talented trio. “Savage Wealth” is a rarity, especially for a community theater troupe: a brilliant script brilliantly performed. The short run—the show closes on September 16—does it a disservice.

 

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.

 

ProductionSavage Wealth
Written byBob Duxbury
Directed byJohn Shillington
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThru Sept. 16th. The show also plays on Thursdays at 8PM.
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
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! Blood Money Roils Family in “All My Sons” – By Barry Willis

The cast at work in “All My Sons”

We can’t escape the consequences of our actions. Nor can our family and friends. That’s the theme of Arthur Miller’s 1947 “All My Sons,” at Role Players Ensemble in Danville through September 16. Directed by Patrick Russell, it’s the company’s first production of the season.

The play appeared less than two years after the end of the great war. Based on a true story, it examines the private aftermath of a manufacturer having knowingly shipped defective cylinder heads for use in P-40 fighter planes. Many of the defective assemblies were installed; some P-40s crashed as a result, killing their pilots.

The manufacturer in Miller’s fictional treatment is Joe Keller (Christian Phillips), a likable, garrulous middle-aged family man whose idealistic son Chris (Dean Koya) has come home from the war to work at his father’s plant. Larry, the other Keller son and an Army Air Force pilot, has been listed as missing in action for more than three years. His mother Kate (Bonnie DeChant) fervently believes that Larry will be found alive and will one day return — a belief reinforced by a helpful neighbor named Frank (Nick Mandrachia), an amateur astrologer who fuels her conviction that Larry can’t be dead because the day he failed to return to base was his “favorable day.”

Joe Keller as played by Christian Phillips

Set in an idyllic small town in Ohio, the action plays out in the course of a single day in the backyard of the Keller home, nicely realized by set designer Robert “Bo” Golden. The backstory is that Steve Deever, the Kellers’ former next-door neighbor and Joe Keller’s production manager, is in prison, having been convicted of approving and shipping defective engine parts. Joe managed to escape serious punishment by pleading no knowledge of the affair, but a nagging cloud of guilt and doubt has hung over the Keller household ever since the investigation.

Steve’s daughter Annie (Marie-Claire Erdynast, in a rock-solid performance) has returned to town to announce her engagement to Chris, one vehemently opposed by his mother because Annie was Larry’s girlfriend. Samuel Tomfohr appears as the well-intentioned neighborhood doctor Jim Bayless; Susan Monson is strong and confident as his avaricious wife Sue. Gabriel A. Ross appears late in the show as George, Steve’s son and a recently minted lawyer. Danielle Tortolani does a nice turn as Lydia, the winsome neighbor.

Miller’s script is a volatile blend of moral ambiguity and social/familial responsibilities…

Phillips gives his character a weary belligerence not normally emphasized in other productions of this classic, while DeChant presents Kate as a desperate hysteric. Ross’s George has some stiffness about him, while Tomfohr’s Dr. Bayless is easy-going and natural. Monson’s extensive professional training is fully in evidence—with superb mastery of inflection, diction, and projection, she has the best voice in the cast. She deserves bigger roles, but does tremendous work with what she’s given here.

Miller’s script is a volatile blend of moral ambiguity and social/familial responsibilities—a blend well served by a mostly expert cast. All the actors have a strong grasp of their characters and lines (no bobbles on opening weekend) but the opening act was slow to get airborne. Eliminating the dead air would help launch the story. Fortunately the pace picks up substantially in the second and third acts and leads to a satisfying if demoralizing resolution.

In October, Role Players will follow this show with “Other Desert Cities,” a more recent story about a long-suppressed family secret. What an interesting pairing that will be.

 

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

 

 

ProductionAll My Sons
Written byArthur Miller
Directed byPatrick Russell
Producing CompanyRole Players Ensemble
Production DatesThru Sept. 16th
Production AddressRole Players Ensemble
233 Front Street
Danville, CA 94526
Websitewww.roleplayersensemble.com
Telephone925.820.1278
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 Theater Review! “Sunday in the Park with George” is a Winner at SF Playhouse – by Barry Willis

Every summer, San Francisco Playhouse puts on a classic musical that runs from late June or early July into September. A hugely successful business model, the strategy takes advantage of tourist traffic in the city’s downtown Union Square area.

The current offering, James Lapine’s and Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” has been so successful that the Playhouse has had to add performances to accommodate demand.  Now halfway through its run, the show is popular for good reasons—among them, superb performances and stunning stagecraft.

…a  beautifully rendered and performed Broadway classic that deserves all the attention it’s getting…

In many ways award-winning director Bill English’s magnum opus, “Sunday in the Park” has amazing sets (also by English) and immersive projections by Theodore J.H. Hulsker that bring the paintings of George Seurat to life, as well as the island in the Seine immortalized in his most famous creation.

The first act’s story focuses on Seurat (John Bambery) and his obsession with 18th century discoveries in optics—in particular, the fact that two closely-spaced unlike colors seen at a distance appear to the eye as a third color. Red and blue appear as lavender, for example.

George (John Bambery) at work on his masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” Photo courtesy of SF Playhouse.

His pointillist technique was enormously time-consuming, leaving little margin for the proper treatment of his lover/model/muse Dot (Nanci Zoppi, who steals the show).  Zoppi also appears in the second act as Marie, Dot’s daughter, and Bambery is Seurat’s American grandson, also named George, and also an artist. There is some disagreement between Marie and this new George about his exact lineage, and about the direction of his art. The second act spoofs the 1970s art world, but the first act seems to take the artist’s struggle quite seriously.

There are no weak links in the large cast—they range from good to exemplary—but standouts include Maureen McVerry as the Old Lady in Act 1 and as modern art maven Blair Daniels in Act 2, and Anthony Rollins-Mullens as Louis.

George (John Bambery) shares a moment with the Old Lady (Maureen McVerry.) Photo courtesy of SF Playhouse.

The creative team is similarly of high caliber, particularly choreographer Kimberly Richards, costumer Abra Berman, and lighting designer Michael Oesch.

The cast of ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ take their positions in Georges Seurat’s famous painting. Photo courtesy SF Playhouse.

“Sunday in the Park” is an absolute spectacle. Sondheim’s music may give some visitors pause—it rarely rises to the level of recognizable melody, and unfortunately, the composer may have exhausted his considerable lyrical abilities in collaborating with Leonard Bernstein on “West Side Story.”

From the same era that gave us “Company” and “Sweeney Todd,” this show tends toward the atonal and repetitive, but it’s nonetheless a  beautifully rendered and performed Broadway classic that deserves all the attention it’s getting.

 

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 ASR Theater Review! “The Tasting Room” Hilarious at Lucky Penny – by Barry Willis

 The owners of a down-on-its-luck family winery panic while awaiting the appearance of a feared critic in “The Tasting Room,” at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions through August 12.

Taylor Bartolucci and Danielle DeBow star as sisters Rebecca and Emily Lusch (“loosh”), proprietors of the Lusch Family Winery, a fictional establishment in the Napa Valley. Their lackadaisical morning routine is interrupted by the appearance of Sid Taylor (Michael Scott Wells), a scout for a publication called “The Wine Fanatic,” home of dreaded curmudgeon Elbert Fleeman (Michael TRoss), a critic who has consistently underrated Lusch products and may have some secret knowledge about the winery’s history.

Playwright and director Barry Martin is confidently understated as cynical salesman and “wine educator” Tony Spicolli, and Tim Setzer has a brilliant cameo as a wine-country tourist trying to cover the entire valley in a few short days. Drawing on plot elements from sources as diverse as “Rattatouie,” “Waiting for Guffman,” and “Bottle Shock,” the show is a quick-paced farce in which almost everything that can go wrong does go wrong. All the action plays out in a simply-conceived natural wood tasting room (set design also by Martin), with little need for set or prop changes.

‘The Tasting Room’ … works perfectly as a stand-alone show.

Bartolucci has the lion’s share of funny lines, most delivered with inebriated weariness—as in her dismissal of the tourist as “a guy who probably does a podcast out of his cellar.” DeBow plays it mostly straight as her strictly-business sibling, as does Ross, who comes in late in the second act to taste randomized samples. Martin has a lot of fun exploiting his character’s dislike for customers, punctuated by frequent trips to the bathroom, a result of gastronomic indiscretion. Michael Scott Wells portrays Sid Taylor as a cringing nebbish who lives in his boss’s shadow, and has surprisingly little interest in wine. He is, however, very interested in Emily, and this secondary plot helps lift the production in spots where the primary plot sags. There isn’t much of that, and this show largely sails along brilliantly.

“The Tasting Room” has room for refinement and the addition of other characters and plot elements—it’s very much like an energetic pilot episode for a promising sitcom, but works perfectly as a stand-alone show. With frequent moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity, it’s a wine country insider production with appeal broad enough for everyone.

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionThe Tasting Roo
Written byBarry Martin
Directed byBarry Martin
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThru August 12th
Production Address1758 Industrial Way, Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckyennynapa.com
Telephone707-266-6305
Tickets$22-$32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?

An ASR Theater Review! Stunning, Perfect “Always, Patsy Cline” at Sonoma Arts Live – by Barry Willis

Patsy Cline’s meteoric career encompassed many firsts: first woman to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, first to tour as a lead act, first to headline in Las Vegas, first female country singer to perform at Carnegie Hall.

This all happened within the short span of six years: from her debut in 1957 until her 1963 death in an airplane crash at the age of 30. We can only speculate about what she might have achieved had she survived. Even so, her glorious honey-toned voice and prodigious output of classic country and popular songs earned her permanence in the pantheon of American music.

She has been widely imitated but never equaled, but Danielle DeBow gets as close as is perhaps humanly possible in “Always, Patsy Cline” at Sonoma Arts Live through July 29. A play-with-music about Cline’s enduring friendship with a fan named Louise Seger (the fantastic Karen Pinomaki), the story follows from their meeting at a honky-tonk club in Houston, through Cline’s career until her untimely death at the age of thirty.

“Always, Patsy Cline” is as near-perfect a production as can be imagined. It’s an absolute must-see.

Playwright Ted Swindley developed the piece from letters between the two. In that sense it is the truest of true stories and an abiding celebration of the power of deep friendship. It’s also hilariously funny. The intensely animated Pinomaki is absolutely convincing as both rabid fan and self-deprecating Texan.

Danielle DeBow at work as Patsy Cline.

She propels the narrative while DeBow melts the audience with Cline’s heart-wrenching songs, backed by the superb onstage Bodacious Bobcat Band and a four-man group appearing as The Jordanaires, legendary background singers who performed with Elvis Presley, among others. The ideally-cast and totally harmonious foursome include stage veterans Sean O”Brien, F. James Raasch, Michael Scott Wells, and Ted von Pohle.

Director Michael Ross (who also handled costume design and shared set design with Theo Bridant) has put together a show that is far beyond the very high level of performance that Bay Area theater fans have grown to expect. The pity is that it closes after an unjustifiably short run. With the wine country tourist season in full flower, this show could run all summer long to sold-out houses. It’s that good.

‘Always, Patsy Cline’ is as near-perfect a production as can be imagined. It’s an absolute must-see.

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle.

 

ProductionHello, Dolly
Written byBook by Michael Stewart, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru Oct. 21st
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$28 – $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

An ASR Theater Review! Bottomless Laughs with “The Savannah Sipping Society” at RVP – by Nicole Singley

Cast of TSSS at RVP

Lost and looking for change, four middle-aged women forge an unlikely alliance over cocktails, romantic woes, and career changes. Fans of “The Dixie Swim Club” and “Always a Bridesmaid” will recognize the hallmarks of authors Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten in this laugh-out-loud comedy about strong southern women and the transformative powers of friendship. At Ross Valley Players through August 12th, “The Savannah Sipping Society” packs in an abundance of clever zingers and feel-good moments guaranteed to leave you smiling.

Uptight and overly-logical Randa (Monica Snell) is recovering from a meltdown and the loss of her high-pressure job, alone in a large house she can no longer afford and unsure of what to do next. Recently widowed Dot (Mary Bishop) is facing an uncertain future on her own, having retired to the area with her husband only months before his passing.

Heather Shepardson at work as Marla Faye in “Savannah Sipping Society”

Boisterous, bottle-toting Marla Faye (Heather Shepardson) is a recent arrival, too, fleeing a painful divorce and philandering husband in Texas. The three cross paths in the aftermath of a hellaciously hot yoga class, and with nothing to lose, decide to reconvene at Randa’s house for drinks.

The evening is off to an uncomfortable start when Dot shows up with an unexpected guest in tow. Bold and brazen beautician Jinx (Sumi Narendran Cardinale) is new in town, too, having spent the majority of her life-changing jobs and moving from place to place. She’s decided to try her hand at life coaching, and with a few drinks under their belts, the women agree to be her guinea pigs. We watch the group grow and bond through a series of hilarious misadventures, cheering each other on as they shake things up and work to overcome their fears and failures.

Monica Snell, Heather Shepardson, and Mary Bishop at work in RVP’s “The Savannah Sipping Society”

Thanks to good casting, awkward social tension evolves into real chemistry and camaraderie as the story progresses. Snell’s Randa is palpably high-strung and Bishop’s Dot is utterly endearing. Narendran Cardinale’s Jinx has spunk and swagger, although her closing monologue felt lacking in sincerity. The writing is strong enough to save the revelatory moment, however, and her performance is otherwise able.

Cleverly written and strongly felt, ‘The Savannah Sipping Society’ is as uplifting as it is hysterical.

Under Tina Taylor’s direction, the women offer up a heap of memorable quips with excellent timing. Shepardson is the stand-out, earning a sizable share of the laughs with well-delivered snark and sass. “Women who carry a few extra pounds,” she informs us, “live longer than the men who call it to their attention.”

The simple, charming set (designed by Tom O’Brien and constructed by Michael Walraven) remains more or less unchanged throughout the show. Miles Smith effectively highlights the characters’ different personalities with complementary costume choices. A chorus of crickets and summer thunderstorms (sound design by Billie Cox) – combined unwittingly with the heat and humidity of opening night – made for an immersive experience.

Cleverly written and strongly felt, “The Savannah Sipping Society” is as uplifting as it is hysterical. Dress for the heat, grab a drink, and sip along to your heart’s content – because according to Marla Faye, “drink responsibly means don’t spill it.”

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

 

 

ProductionThe Savannah Sipping Society
Written byJessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, Jamie Wooten
Directed byTina Taylor
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru August 12th
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415. 456.9555
Tickets$15 - $27
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! Uproarious, Upbeat “Shrek, The Musical” at Raven Theater – by Nicole Singley

Shrek: The Musical at Raven Theater

Based on the popular animated DreamWorks movie and book by William Steig, “Shrek, The Musical” is foot-tapping fun for the whole family, with enough adult humor in the mix to satisfy audiences of all ages. At Healdsburg’s Raven Theater through July 8th, this adventurous tale packs in a score of catchy tunes, outrageous laughs, and, of course, a happy and heartwarming ending to top it all off.

Our unlikely but lovable hero, Shrek (Caleb Daniel Noal), is a curmudgeonly ogre who keeps to himself in the solitude of his swamp. That is until a crowd of fairytale characters comes knocking seeking refuge on his land. The evil Lord Farquaad – large in ego, small in stature, and played brilliantly by Bill Garcia – has issued them an ominous eviction notice from the neighboring kingdom of Duloc, and they have nowhere else to go.

A feast for the eyes and ears…

With the unwanted help of a talkative donkey he meets along the way (the hilarious Troy Thomas Evans), Shrek sets out to Duloc and strikes a deal with Lord Farquaad to reclaim his swamp. He must rescue Princess Fiona (Kelly Hitman) from a dragon-guarded tower and escort her to the castle, where Farquaad hopes to make her his bride. Things are on course until a shocking secret threatens to derail our hero’s journey, reminding us that “beautiful ain’t always pretty,” and proving sometimes life surprises us with endings far happier than anything we could have planned.

A feast for the eyes and ears, “Shrek” features entertaining choreography by Katie Watts-Whitaker and an ensemble of talented singers, all accompanied by a live eight-piece chamber orchestra. Standout vocal performances by the vivacious Hitman and enthusiastic Evans are made all the more enjoyable by the physicality of their acting. Fiona’s facial expressions and Donkey’s body language often communicate as much or more than their lines and lyrics.

Evans Noal and Hitman in Shrek:The Musical

Noal nails the characteristic accent movie fans will remember, but he is hard to hear at times. His Shrek feels a bit muted and unenergetic; a more dynamic performance with increased physicality might help to convey more emotion. Audiences may feel inclined to cut him some slack, however, for the evident limitations of his cumbersome garb.

The artistic team and crew at Raven Theater have brought this feel-good show to life with a host of elaborate costumes (Jeanine Grey and Robert Zelenka), spectacular make-up (Tara Kelly Ryan), and clever props (Kerry Duvall). Highlights include a singing dragon (designed and fabricated by Michael Mingoia and puppeteered by Eric Yanez) and a sassy gingerbread cookie (voiced and puppeteered by Stephanie Beard).

Garcia has designed and fabricated his own ingenious masking, adding much to the tear-inducing hilarity of his turn as the altitude-challenged Lord Farquaad. The show is worth seeing for his performance alone, thanks to a handful of laugh-out-loud moments that just might bring you to your knees. (Pun intended, for those who’ve seen it.)

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

 

 

ProductionShrek: The Musical
Written byJeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire
Directed byKerry Duvall
Producing CompanyRaven Theater
Production DatesThru July 8th
Production AddressRaven Theater Healdsburg
115 North Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Websitehttp://www.raventheater.org
Telephone707-433-6335
TicketsSee website
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5

An ASR Theater Review! Delightful “Soft Power” at the Curran – by Barry Willis

Cultural appropriation gets turned upside down in David Henry Hwang’s “Soft Power,” through July 8 at San Francisco’s Curran.

China is clearly on its way toward being the dominant economic force in the 21st century. Its cultural influence isn’t yet on par with its industrial and financial power, but there seems little doubt that its ascendency is inevitable. Directed by Leigh Silverman, the fantastically entertaining “Soft Power” imagines a near future when Chinese film, TV, and theater borrow heavily and indiscriminately from standard tropes of 20th-century American popular culture. The title is code for a nation’s global cultural influence.

Hwang opens the piece with a meeting between himself (played by Francis Hue), a successful screenwriter, and Xue Xing (Conrad Ricamora), an executive with “Dragon Media” sent to Hollywood to recruit talent for productions for the Chinese domestic market. Xing’s comprehension of English is excellent but he needs help with idioms and cultural details. His slight Chinese accent gradually disappears as the story moves forward in time, an indication that he’s become fully assimilated.

Alyse Alan Louis (center), working in ‘Soft Power’ at the Curran. Photo by Craig Schwartz.

A classic Hollywood trope involves his much younger starlet girlfriend Zoe (Alyse Alan Louis, a fantastically talented singer who also does a superb impression of Hillary Clinton in one of the core story’s many tangents.)

The ambitious but somewhat out-of-control script covers everything from America’s love affair with firearms to the venomous 2016 presidential election and its aftermath to typical American/European stereotypes of Asians in such beloved shows as “The King and I” and similar huge-scale theatrical productions.

Sam Pinkleton’s choreography is especially delicious, riffing on classics like “Billy the Kid” and “Oklahoma.” Watching nearly two dozen mostly Asian performers hamming it up in blonde wigs and mid-South accents is a scream.

‘Soft Power’ is a wildly entertaining celebration…

The script leaps forward to a televised discussion among Chinese cultural intellectuals about the “invention of new theatrical forms” combining speech, song, and dance. Stagecraft is superb, immersive, and at times almost overwhelming.

This is a hilarious must-see production for anyone interested in the future, in the abysmal state of American politics or in an alternate take on the stupidly contentious issue of cultural appropriation. Should Anglo women be driven out of business for making and selling tacos and burritos? Is it fair that white college girls get harassed by their Hispanic sisters for wearing hoop earrings? These questions aren’t hypothetical; both have happened recently.

A visit to McDonald’s, a fine eatery, in ‘Soft Power.’
Photo by Craig Schwartz

The bottom line is that humans copy everything they like—food, fashion, music, art, language, technology. “Soft Power” is a wildly entertaining celebration of this eternal truth. It’s a genius production whose short three-week run does it an unintentional  disservice.

Barry Willis

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer 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

 

 

ProductionSoft Power
Written byDavid Henry Hwang
Directed byLeigh Silverman
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesThru July 8th
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$39 – $175
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5

 

An ASR Theater Review! Bold, Incisive “Dry Powder” at Aurora Theatre – by Barry Willis

One devilish deal leads to the next in Sarah Burgess’s incisive “Dry Powder,” at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, through July 22.

Directed by Jennifer King, this Bay Area premiere is a dark comedy that peers into the often impenetrable world of private equity—a niche of the financial world where companies are bought, sold, merged, or dismembered in pursuit of mind-blowing profits.

A high-stakes game with enormous potential for victory and defeat, and enormous potential to affect countless people, private equity is little understood by ordinary citizens except as a scapegoat for all that might and can go wrong on the grand economic scale. The show’s title refers to working capital—money in reserve, the industry’s primary tool.

Bay Area stalwart Aldo Billingsly, along with Jeremy Kahn, in ‘Dry Powder’ at Aurora Theater

Bay Area theater veteran Aldo Billingsly is brilliant as Rick, the volatile founder of a private equity firm that’s recoiling from some very bad press about his lavish wedding party in the aftermath of a buyout that threw thousands of people out of work.

Junior partners Seth (Jeremy Kahn) and Jenny (Emily Jeanne Brown) bring him potential deals, treatments for deals, financial projections for various scenarios, personal advice, and insider opinions about the probable public relations consequences of their deals—in this case, a proposed buyout of an American luggage maker with more than 500 employees.

Emily Jeanne Brown at work as Jenny, in ‘Dry Powder’

It’s a deal that Seth has been nursing for months, in the process forming a strong bond with Jeff (Kevin Kemp), co-owner of the target company. The two have such a pronounced “bromance” that Jeff is actually excited about the possibility of reviving the brand and re-jiggering its business model to create a whole new market for personalized luggage.

A math-whiz elitist with zero empathy for working people, Jenny dismisses Jeff’s ideas as feel-good nonsense and presents an alternate plan to buy the company, spin off its assets, and send production offshore—a plan with a larger potential upside but horrible social consequences. Numbers are all that matter to Jenny. The fact that this will render 500 people jobless is of no concern to her—”It’s their responsibility to learn how to do something else,” she flatly states.

Hilarious and horrific, ‘Dry Powder’ is a quickie tour of one of the outer rings of hell…

Therein lies the moral struggle in Rick’s office, depicted with superb energy and conviction on the Aurora’s simple, all-white thrust stage (set by Tanya Oellana, lights by Kurt Landisman, sound by James Ard). Jenny and Seth battle like adolescent brother and sister—much of it side-splittingly funny—and Rick alternately takes their counsel or reins them in. A couple of plot twists near the end drive home the Faustian nature of their business, including a desperate alliance with a Hong Kong financier so corrupt that he’s lost his Chinese citizenship.

Hilarious and horrific, “Dry Powder” is a quickie tour of one of the outer rings of hell—if you believe the old adage that the love of money is the root of all evil. In Berkeley, the message will certainly find an eager audience, who may be dismayed at the verity of another old adage: Everyone has a price.

Barry Willis

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer 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

 

 

ProductionDetroit '67
Written byDominique Morisseau
Directed byDarryl V. Jones
Producing CompanyAurora Theater Co.
Production DatesThru Oct. 7th
Production AddressAurora Theater Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone510.843.4822
Tickets$33 – $65
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

 

An ASR Theater Review! Spectacular Transcendence Theatre Company – by Barry Willis

“Stairway to Paradise” at Transcendence Theater Company

The old adage has it that the difference between good and great is enormous. That enormity is totally apparent in “Stairway to Paradise,” the current production by Transcendence Theatre Company, at Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen, through July 1.

Now in its seventh year, Transcendence doesn’t deliver traditional drama, comedy or musical productions but instead offers stellar revues of music and dance by dozens of Broadway professionals, whose youth is belied by their skill, confidence, and commanding stage presence. “Stairway” is a collection of uplifting songs from Broadway classics with a few enduring pop hits thrown in for variety. The performances range from stunning solo efforts to duets, trios, and full ensemble pieces that will make you glad to be alive.

Some of the performances have a charmingly improvisational characteristic—an intimate, almost throwaway feel—but there is a daunting amount of rehearsal behind each Transcendence production. Each piece segues seamlessly into the next, backed by the rock-solid and solidly-rocking Transcendence band. Comedic intervals include a spoof on a TV game show that may involve volunteers from the audience.

The venue in the park’s stone ruins couldn’t be more accommodating. Ticketholders can enjoy picnicking from 5 p.m. onward until the show begins at 8, on a roughly constructed but perfectly serviceable stage set against the Sonoma hills.

Transcendence Theatre Company is the summer’s North Bay musical destination.

Transcendence does winter holiday shows indoors—last season’s were at the Marin Veterans Auditorium in San Rafael and the Luther Burbank Center in Santa Rosa—and a series of summer shows at Jack London. “Stairway to Paradise” runs through July 1, to be followed by “Fantastical Family Night” July 13 & 14; “Shall We Dance” August 3 – 19; and “Gala Celebration” September 7 – 9.

Transcendence Theatre Company is the summer’s North Bay musical destination. Ordering tickets well in advance is highly recommended. These shows sell out quickly, and with good reason: the world is in dire need of the kind of positive energy that Transcendence serves up at every show.

 

Barry Willis

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer 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

 

 

Transcendence Theatre Company presents

“Stairway to Paradise”

Through July 1: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Saturday, Sunday

Jack London State Historic Park  Glen Ellen, CA

Tickets: $45 – $145 (single, reserved seating); Group discounts available Info: 877-424-1414 ext. 1,

www.BestNightEver.org

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

 

An ASR Theater Review! Amazing, Wonderful “Walk on the Moon” at ACT – by Barry Willis

“A Walk on the Moon” at ACT

1969 was a pivotal year in the United States. The Vietnam War was approaching its peak, as was opposition to it at home. The civil rights and women’s movements grew more intense by the week. In late July, the first astronaut walked on the moon, and shortly thereafter a half-million music fans showed up at a farm near Woodstock, NY, for what would be the defining cultural moment of the decade.

All of this figures into “A Walk on the Moon,” at ACT through July 1. It’s a beguiling tale of a Jewish housewife’s late-in-life coming of age through an accidental encounter with a hippie peddler. Katie Brayben stars as Pearl Kantrowitz, a young mother from Flatbush, whose family traditionally spends a few idyllic summer weeks at a resort in the Catskills with friends and neighbors, all of whom, save Pearl’s rebellious adolescent daughter Alison (Brigid O’Brien), are still very much in the 1950s.

Marty and Pearl – Jonah Platt and Katie Brayben in “A Walk on the Moon” at ACT

Pearl’s TV-repairman husband Marty (Jonah Platt) can’t stay with them as much as he would prefer because business is booming at the repair shop where he works , in anticipation of the moon landing. Pearl spends idle moments hanging out with Walker (Zak Resnick), a local free spirit who sells blouses out of his camper van. Their friendship blossoms and culminates in a psychedelic adventure during the music festival, mirroring a less-intense affair that Alison has with a charming guitar-playing boy named Ross (Nick Sacks).

The story covers a short period in social history but a huge episode in Pearl’s life. She was, as she describes it, almost a child bride—one who went from high school to motherhood with no developmental period in between. Walker, and the ideas he shares with her, are Pearl’s forbidden fruit, and like Eve in Genesis Chapter 3, her eyes are opened.

Pearl and Walker – Katie Brayben and Zak Resnick at ACT

The verdant setting of the “bungalow colony” feels almost like Eden as realized by scenic designer Donyale Werle, and Tal Yarden’s astoundingly immersive projections go a long way toward encompassing the heady events of the late 1960s. Stagecraft at ACT is almost always beyond reproach, but this production is among the company’s most spectacular. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

“A Walk on the Moon’ is a flawless, must-see production.

Developed by Pamela Gray from the 1990s movie of the same name, “A Walk on the Moon” beautifully evokes a period whose effects still resonate almost fifty years later. The music by Paul Scott Goodman, with additional lyrics by Gray, gets the ‘60s feel just right while sounding totally contemporary. The entire cast is superb but Brayben takes her performance completely over the moon (sorry) with all-consuming dramatic conviction, fantastic dancing, and stunning vocals. It’s one of the most complete and fully engaged performances you’re likely to see this year.

“A Walk on the Moon” is a flawless, must-see production. Its only drawback is that it isn’t running all summer.

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer: Barry Willis

Barry Willis is ASR’s Theater Section Editor and a Sr. Contributor at Aisle Seat Review. He is also 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

 

 

 

“A Walk on the Moon” by Pamela Gray; Music by Paul Scott Goodman; Directed by Sheryl Kaller

Through July 1: Tuesday– Saturday, 8 p.m.; Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, 2 p.m.

American Conservatory Theater  Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA

Tickets: $15 – $110

Info: 415-749-2228, act-sf.org

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

An ASR Theater Review! Pointless, Misguided “Straight White Men” at Marin Theatre Company – by Barry Willis

Straight White Men at Marin Theater Company

A Christmas holiday family reunion goes off the rails in Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men” at Marin Theatre Company, through July 8.

Directed by Morgan Gould, the one-act production has brothers Jake and Drew (Seann Gallagher and Christian Haines) converge on their family home to celebrate with brother Matt (Ryan Tasker) and father Ed (James Carpenter). In their 30s and 40s, the brothers immediately revert to middle-school antics when they get together. Some of this is funny, in the way that adults behaving like children can be funny, but most of it goes on too long. There are some comedic bits that are truly brilliant, such as Matt vacuuming the floor with great dignity, the brothers vamping like runway models in their new Christmas pajamas, or their extended faux-improv on the theme song from “Oklahoma” that emphasizes racial superiority and Nazi madness.

Scant comedy mostly provides a smokescreen for the lack of substance in Lee’s script, a thinly veiled attack on the pretenses and privileges of heterosexual Caucasian males. The brothers and father are all not merely straight white men, but the worst of their kind, liberal straight white men—those who pretend to be allies of the oppressed but are actually enemies.

Cast of “Straight White Men” at MTC

Ed is a retired engineer who runs his own social-good foundation; Jake is a banker whose kids “are half-black;” Drew is a novelist and tenured professor; the under-employed Matt spent ten years working toward a doctorate at Stanford, including a year in Ghana, as he describes it, “teaching things I didn’t understand to people who didn’t want to learn them.” To beat the audience over the head with their hypocrisy, Lee has them play a board game called “Privilege” designed by their departed mother.

The core of the drama is Matt’s depressed, rudderless existence. He’s overeducated, doing menial work and living with his father, whom he helps with chores and household maintenance. He carries a crushing load of student debt accumulated from a decade in pursuit of his dead-end Ph.D., and lacks the confidence to engage in conversation in a job interview. Brother Jake coaches him on how to do this, then brother Drew tries to help him with some feel-good therapy, telling him if he doesn’t follow through, their relationship is over. Ed whips out his checkbook and in a stunning act of generosity, offers to clear Matt’s debts. Then he boots him out. The end.

Where is the second act that resolves the can of worms that’s opened in the first? The whole production is just an arbitrary unflattering snapshot of some ordinary people. The essence of “Straight White Men” is little more than a few somewhat-related ideas looking for a structure. Despite the praise heaped upon playwright Lee in the program (and elsewhere), the story comes off as a half-baked work-in-progress. How it arrived at a major Equity house is baffling and unbelievable, but the acting is excellent—James Carpenter is our local national treasure; Ryan Tasker is terrific—and the set design by Lucciana Stecconi is wonderful.

The huge unanswered question provoked by “Straight White Men:” What is the point of all this? The script has no character arc and almost no dramatic arc. Second unanswered question: What is the point of the framing device of the two observers (“Person in Charge 1” and “2”)?  Person in Charge 2 (Arianna Evans) is a malevolent punk princess who glowers at the audience from stage left or right, looking as if she might inflict serious damage from her leather-clad fists should anyone dare to speak. Then there’s Person in Charge 1 (J Jha), a bearded representative of the gender-fluid community, who flits around in a lurex hoodie during fifteen minutes of deafening, screechy electro-thump as the audience finds their seats. It’s a lot to ask of paying customers, who are then treated to a lecture on the trendy misuse of personal pronouns and possessive adjectives, in particular, the use of “they” as a singular pronoun applied to individuals with multiple gender identities. How any of this relates to the story of the depicted family is a mystery.

Final question: What if an equivalent play were written by a straight white male about four Asian women, exploiting every conceivable stereotype? Critics would vilify it. Protesters would be lined up around the theater and down the block. They might even succeed in shutting down the production. Today straight white males are the only ethnic group that can be ridiculed with impunity. Keep that in mind when you sit down to endure your next sermon on political correctness.

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer: Barry Willis

Barry Willis is ASR’s Theater Section Editor and a Sr. Contributor at Aisle Seat Review. He is also 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

 

 

 

“Straight White Men” by Young Jean Lee, directed by Morgan Gould

Through July 8: Tues-Sun, 7:30 p.m

Marin Theatre Company  397 Miller Avenue Mill Valley, CA  94941

Tickets: $22 – $60

Info: 415-388-5208, www.marintheatre.org

Rating: Two out of Five Stars

An ASR Theater Review! Adventurous “Good. Better. Best. Bested.” at Custom Made Theatre – by Nicole Singley

“Good. Better. Best. Bested.” at Custom Made Theater

It’s a normal night of gambling and drunken debauchery on the Las Vegas strip until a catastrophic event half a world away sends shockwaves rippling through the crowded streets of Nevada’s most infamous and alluring destination.

Jonathan Spector’s elaborately-woven satire – at Custom Made Theatre through July 7th – crashes the party and bears witness to the aftermath in a series of revealing vignettes. Making its world premiere at this intimate San Francisco venue, “Good. Better. Best. Bested.” is co-produced by Custom Made Theatre Co. and Spector’s own Berkeley-based company, Just Theater.

From magicians, prostitutes, gamblers, and bachelorette parties to costume-clad street performers and obnoxious, selfie-snapping tourists, this 90-minute, nonstop show darts back and forth between characters and storylines offering glimpses into the lives of recognizable Las Vegas fixtures. We watch their night unfold in the wake of devastating news, following along as they struggle to process and react to an unexpected buzz-kill of epic proportions. Can the party continue amid the chaos and confusion, or will doom and gloom prevail?

Jessica Lea Risco delivers a strong and nuanced performance as hired escort Simone, holed up uncomfortably in a hotel room with nervous would-be customer Alan (Gabriel Montoya) when the bad news hits.

Gabriel Montoya and Jessica Lea Risco at Custom Made.

Lauren Andrei Garcia shines as ditzy drama-queen Sue, determined to salvage her bachelorette festivities by any means possible. Tim Garcia nails an impressive, lightning-paced monologue riddled with more casino-friendly terminology than a copy of Gambling for Dummies. He is excellent as frenetic 17-year-old Sheldon, keeping his broke father Walter (David Sinaiko) afloat with handouts from his winnings.

Mick Mize is equally capable in dual roles as disenchanted stage magician Jordan and an inebriated, skirt-chasing tourist (“The Bro”) evoking blurry memories of frat-house parties past. Millie Brooks provides comic relief as Sue’s beleaguered best friend Marla, along for the wild ride whether she likes it or not.

Millie Brooks and Mick Mize at Custom Made.

Director Lauren English succeeds beautifully in bringing the humor and humanity of Spector’s script to life. A less talented group of actors may have made it difficult to see the same faces assuming so many roles, but the cast switches gears seamlessly and convincingly, making it surprisingly easy to forget that the drunken playboy hitting on our hapless bride-to-be was a magician only moments earlier. Noteworthy sound design by Jaren Feeley adds much to the overall production quality, with the well-timed entrances of voices swelling in the background and cellphone sound effects so realistic that members of the audience were seen reaching to check their own devices.

It’s an entertaining, fast-moving, emotional roller coaster of a production, shifting effectively between episodes eliciting side-splitting laughter, serious reflection, shock, and horror, all punctuated by an uneasy sense of sadness and despair that looms over even some of the most awkward and laugh-out-loud moments in this multi-dimensional comedy.

Spector has crafted his characters with empathy and depth, exploiting their flaws when it suits his purpose, but not at the expense of making them both relatable and compelling. “Good. Better. Best. Bested.” is a thought-provoking journey into the heart of Sin City and humankind at large, underlining the fragility of the ever-fleeting here and now.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

 

 

 

“Good. Better. Best. Bested.” by Jonathan Spector

Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter St, San Francisco, CA 94102

Through July 7, 2018

Tickets: $35—$42

Info: (415) 798-2682, custommade.org

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

 

ASR Theater Review! Lucky Penny Has a Winner for Everyone With “Hands on a Hardbody” – by Barry Willis

“Hands on a Hardbody” at Lucky Penny

Down-on-their-luck Texans test their endurance to win a new Nissan pickup truck in an auto dealer’s publicity stunt. This may not sound like a solid basis for an uplifting comedic musical, but it works beautifully in “Hands on a Hardbody,” at Lucky Penny Productions in Napa, through June 17.

A real-life situation that may have originated at Jack King’s Nissan dealership in Longview, Texas, in the early 1990s, the contest required competitors to keep at least one hand on the truck at all times, except for intermittent 15-minute breaks for water, food, and restroom visits—no lying down, and no sleeping. Losing contact with the truck meant disqualification from the competition—something easy to do as excitement, dehydration, fatigue, numbness, sleep deprivation, and hallucinations all take their toll. King’s dealership ran the contest annually for 13 years—one that was widely imitated throughout the country—and was the subject of a 1995 documentary film, which inspired the musical; book by Doug Wright, music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, lyrics by Amanda Green.

With “Hands on a Hardbody,” Lucky Penny has a winner for everyone—cast, crew, and audience alike.

A gleaming red truck occupies center stage in Lucky Penny’s horseshoe-shaped arena, with assorted competitors surrounding it, sometimes marching around it and sometimes pushing it around. “If I Had This Truck” is one of the most heartfelt songs of wistful hope that’s ever been sung, and Staci Arriaga’s incredibly clever choreography has them adhere to the rules—one hand in contact at all times—although in a couple of instances they cheat by stepping into the truck’s bed for extended improvisations. The four-piece band under the direction of Craig Burdette is excellent, rocking the house from above stage right.

Director Taylor Bartolucci gets astoundingly great performances from her 15-member ensemble, one with no weak links. Standouts include Daniela Innocenti-Beem as Norma Valverde, a true-believer Christian certain that God intends her to have that truck, Brian Watson as Benny Perkins, a hard-core badass with a sad past; and Alex Gomez as Jesus Pena, who needs it to pay for veterinary school. Barry Martin is especially convincing as J.D. Drew, an easygoing good-ole-boy whose industrial accident has cost him his job and benefits. Shannon Rider is excellent as his exhausted but ever-supportive wife Ginny.

With “Hands on a Hardbody,” Lucky Penny has a winner for everyone—cast, crew, and audience alike. It’s a shame that it doesn’t run longer.

ASR Theater Section Editor and Sr. Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

“Hands on a Hardbody”

Through June 17: 7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday

Lucky Penny Productions – 1758 Industrial Way   Community Arts Center, Napa

Tickets: $28 – $39 Info: 707-266-6305, www.luckypennynapa.com

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

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ASR Capsule Theater Review! NTC’s “Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain” – By Barry Willis

“Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain” at NTC

Playwright Mark Dunn went to the UT Austin. His time in Texas taught him much about how Southern women relate to each other.  At Novato Theater Company through June 10, his “Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain” is a comedy about bank tellers who meet each morning in the break room of a branch bank in Oxford, Mississippi to share the latest episodes of their personal soap operas—episodes that invariably involve men and the problems they cause.

Hande Gokbas plays head teller Lorene, who scarcely tolerates her co-workers’ tardiness and inattention to work until she meets a promising potential mate herself. Meanwhile the other tellers—Jenny (Lindsay John), Twyla (Janelle Ponte), Betina (Jayme Catalano), and Delores (Sandi V. Weldon)—engage nonstop with problems as minor as personal disagreements and as serious as divorce and death, talk of which is a mix of deadpan discussion and provocative pronouncement delivered in plausible accents.

With “Five Tellers,” Dunn follows a foolproof time-honored strategy for comedy: put very different characters in a pressure cooker, and slowly turn up the heat.  It always worked for Neil Simon, and under the direction of Anna Smith, the gambit works nicely here too. This well-paced companion piece to “Steel Magnolias” offers plenty of laughs and an upbeat conclusion that will make you happy you bought a ticket.

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

 

“Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain” by Novato Theater Company at NTC Playhouse, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato

Through June 10; Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m.

Tickets: $15 – $27

Info: 1-855-682-8491, www.novatotheatercompany.org

Rating: Three-and-a-half Out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Marin Shakespeare’s Chilling, Morose “Hamlet” – by Barry Willis

 

Nate Currier as Hamlet photo by Scott London

Four hundred-plus years after its debut, Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” still has a lot to teach us about avarice, ambition, betrayal, and revenge. Based on stories and legends reaching far back into the dim recesses of time—the Wikipedia entry is an excellent resource—“Hamlet” is among Shakespeare’s most enduring and popular tragedies.

In it, a brooding young prince comes home from college to discover that his father has been murdered by his uncle Claudius, who has married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and usurped the throne. Wracked with self-doubt, Hamlet plots revenge while the guilt-ridden Claudius conspires to send him away, perhaps permanently. The outcome isn’t pretty.

Directed by Robert Currier, Marin Shakespeare Company’s modern-dress outdoor production intentionally leverages the palace intrigue and manipulation of fact that occupy so much of our daily news coverage. The stark set by Jackson Currier evokes the bombed-out remains of Baghdad or Aleppo, while newly-crowned King Claudius (Rod Gnapp) resembles Vladimir Putin, with an entourage that includes his verbose, obsequious, and ever-present minister Polonius (Steve Price, excellent), Polonius’s son and daughter Laertes and Ophelia (Hunter Scott MacNair and Talia Friedenberg, respectively) and Queen Gertrude (Arwen Anderson), a glamour-puss with little to say but, as prominent arm candy, much to contribute to Claudius’s attempts to legitimize himself. The guards at Castle Elsinore carry automatic weapons, not spears; Hamlet dispatches the spying Polonius with a silencer-equipped pistol, not a dagger.

As the tormented prince, Nate Currier brings a pronounced sense of the contemporaneous to his role without pandering to the present. He’s also the right age for the part, one sometimes attempted by middle-aged actors in a thirst to tackle one of the greatest characters ever written—a not-uncommon theatrical trope as absurd as having Madame Butterfly sung by a heavyweight matron. Arwen Anderson doesn’t look old enough to be completely believable as Hamlet’s mother—his super-model stepmom, maybe, but Gertrude may have been a child bride.

Barry Kraft is superb in multiple roles—as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, as the “First Player” of the theatrical troupe that Hamlet hires for a court performance—and he absolutely shines as the gravedigger, the show’s one bit of comic relief before the final bloodbath. It’s one of the juiciest cameos in all of Shakespeare.

Ophelia feels the pain – photo by Jay Yamada

Talia Friedenberg lends strong vocal talent and a refreshing lack of inhibition to the part of whacked-out Ophelia, while MacNair gives Laertes a resounding sense of decency in a cesspool of backstabbing. Brennan Pickman-Thoon is rock-solid as Hamlet’s loyal friend Horatio.

Looking over “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “Macbeth,” “Richard II,” and the Bard’s other plays depicting madness and criminality among the nobility, one might conclude that Shakespeare didn’t have much respect for the ruling class. Human nature will never change. “Hamlet” goes a long way in showing us how if not exactly why. This production runs just about three hours with intermission. The outdoor setting can be chilly at night, while afternoons can be sweltering. Come prepared.

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.

 

“Hamlet” by Marin Shakespeare Company

Through July 8: Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees 4 p.m.

Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University, San Rafael, CA

Tickets: $10 – $38 Info: 415-499-4488, www.marinshakespeare.org

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Enjoyable “Jeeves Intervenes” at Sonoma Arts Live – by Nicole Singley

“Jeeves Intervenes” at Sonoma Arts Live

Adapted from the stories of popular 20th-century humorist P.G. Wodehouse, “Jeeves Intervenes” brings lovable playboy Bertie Wooster and his ever-sensible manservant to the stage for new adventures in London’s 1920s haut monde. Paying homage to Wodehouse’s keen ability for satire, Margaret Raether’s script takes comedic aim at England’s strait-laced elite, weaving an entertaining web of elaborate scheming, pretense, and old-fashioned farce. The Sonoma Arts Live production, playing now through May 27th, is good for a few big laughs and an evening of light-hearted fare.

Bertie (Delaney Brummé) enjoys a life of leisurely bachelorhood, relying on his aunt’s financial support and loyal valet Jeeves (the excellent Randy St. Jean) to keep him out of constant trouble. When domineering Aunt Agatha (Jennie Brick) comes to town with plans to pressure Bertie into marriage, it’s up to quick-thinking Jeeves to rescue his charge from the unwanted union with up-and-coming socialite Gertie (Libby Oberlin).

Meanwhile, Bertie’s old school mate Eustace, aka “Bassy” (Nick Moore), is dreading the arrival of a disapproving uncle who intends to ship him off to a job in India. Having never worked a day in his life – and desperately hoping to change his overbearing benefactor’s mind – Bassy must convince Sir Rupert (Larry Williams) that he’s built a suitable life for himself in London. (Spoiler alert: he hasn’t.)

Can blundering Bassy escape a life of labor abroad without lifting a finger or losing his allowance? Is our steadfast bachelor doomed to go through life as the unpalatable “Bertie and Gertie?” Cue the shenanigans and enter Jeeves to save the day. Deception multiplies, new love blossoms, sparks fly, and old flames reignite as our clever hero works his magic behind the scenes.

St. Jean carries the show with his levelheaded demeanor, reserved sarcasm, and efficacious intonation. He is the picture of a proper gentleman’s gentleman, charming the audience with his dry wit and subtle, all-knowing expressions. Moore’s Bassy is marked by an appropriate air of highfalutin laziness and clumsy tomfoolery, which earns some laughs and helps to sell his character. Oberlin is a good fit for debutante Gertie, with a winning smile and youthful exuberance well suited to the task of whipping wayward young men into matrimonial shape.

“Jeeves Intervenes”

Brick and Williams are competent in their roles, though more believable as meddling relatives than former paramours. A lack of chemistry lessens the excitement we want to feel for their romance. Brummé’s otherwise able performance is regrettably overshadowed by a jarring vocal gimmick, which oversteps the boundary between funny and obnoxious and, at times, obscures the actor’s lines. Cracking into a shrill pitch with awkward regularity, his delivery feels more appropriate for a pubescent schoolboy than a suave womanizer in high society. It’s an unfortunate distraction from Raether’s witty dialogue, but the physicality of the comedy is often enough to overcome any confusion about what’s happening on-stage.

The production is enhanced by Carl Jordan’s colorful set and Moira McGovern’s period-appropriate musical selections. Eric Jackson’s costumes are mostly a hit, though Gertie’s outfits often (and perhaps deliberately) upstage the other characters’.

Despite its faults, the show evokes a pleasant nostalgia for eras past with its slapstick humor and whimsical characters. The mischief concludes with the satisfaction of a happy ending, all thanks, of course, to the intervention of our hero.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

“Jeeves Intervenes” by Margaret Raether, adapted from the works of P.G. Wodehouse

Sonoma Arts Live

Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall at the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E Napa St, Sonoma, CA 95476

Through May 27, 2018

Tickets: $22—$37

Info: 866-710-8942, www.sonomaartslive.org

Rating: Three out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Incisive, Hilarious “Entomologist’s Love Story” at SF Playhouse – by Barry Willis

SF Playhouse: An Entomologist’s Love Story

“Neoteny” is a scientific term for the persistence of immature characteristics in mature organisms: adult dogs with the look and behavior of puppies, for example. By extension, it could be applied to a large swath of the thirty-something population, many of whom seem to have reached their limit of social development in middle school.

It’s also a strong sub-theme in “An Entomologist’s Love Story,” at San Francisco Playhouse through June 23. Expertly directed by Giovanna Sardelli, Melissa Ross’s tight, insightful script examines the relationship of Betty and Jeff (Lori Prince and Lucas Verbrugghe), two doctoral candidates who work together in the entomology department of the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

SF Playhouse: Lucas Verbrugghe and Lori Prince

Briefly lovers during their undergrad days, the two now enjoy a playful relationship like teenage brother and sister. Their nerdy banter is the source of much of Ross’s comedy—much of it true-to-life proof that “thirty is the new thirteen.” Betty is an expert on the mating behaviors of insects—the play is bracketed by her lectures on the subject—but is obsessed with the mating behaviors of humans, an activity with which she has had much experience but no longterm success. She clings to Jeff, who clearly wants to move on, but doesn’t know how.

Lindsay (Jessica Lynn Carroll, right) shows an insect specimen to Jeff (Lucas Verbrugghe).

Then one day he meets Lindsay (Jessica Lynn Carroll), a young woman geekier by far than he and Betty combined, and soon he knows she’s the girl for him. How to break away from Betty is his challenge, and dealing with that is hers. Then life throws her a curve ball in the form of an intellectual janitor named Andy (Will Springhorn, Jr.), who’s attended her lectures and has read “War and Peace” in its entirety.

It’s a spare, beautifully structured plot without a hint of fluff. Every line and every action propel the story toward its lovely uplifting conclusion, all of it conveyed on a spectacular set—both interior and exterior of the museum—by Nina Ball, one of the Bay Area’s most gifted and adventurous set designers. This show’s scientific setting and dissection of the personal lives of realistic scientists make it an excellent follow-up to “The Effect,” with its theme of love and research. And love-among-the-nerds makes it a superb companion piece to “Tinderella,” running through May 26 at Custom Made Theatre, in SF Playhouse’s former home on Sutter Street. Hilarious and hopeful, “An Entomologist’s Love Story” is a sweet antidote for what ails 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.

 

“An Entomologist’s Love Story”

San Francisco Playhouse

Through June 23, 2018

420 Post Street, San Francisco

(Second floor of the Kensington Hotel)

Tickets: $30-$100 Info: www.sfplayhouse.org

Rating: 4 1/2 Out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Dangerously Funny “Women in Jeopardy!” at Left Edge Theatre by Nicole Singley

“Women in Jeopardy!” — Too Close for Comfort

At Left Edge Theatre through May 27th, Wendy MacLeod’s “Women In Jeopardy!” promises an evening of uproarious laughter and good, light-hearted fun. Despite the murder mystery at its center, this two-act, 90-minute show feels more like an episode of your favorite zany sitcom. But will everybody make it out alive?

Divorcees Mary, Jo, and Liz are the best and oldest of gal pals, their friendship a comfortable routine of fun runs and weekly wine parties. But when Liz (Angela Squire) shows up to their regular girls’ night with – surprise! – new boyfriend Jackson (Richard Pallaziol) at her side, Mary and Jo are instantly suspicious. Liz is love-struck and insists there’s nothing sinister about her beau, but something about Jackson is a little off. Perhaps it’s his deadpan (and borderline creepy) sense of humor. Maybe it’s his bizarre fixation with Silence of the Lambs. Or it might have something to do with the recent disappearance of a young female employee from his dental practice, or the torture chamber-esque basement he’s stocked full of antique dental instruments…. Who’s to say?

Convinced they’ve lost their dearest friend to a dangerous serial killer, Mary (Shannon Rider) and Jo (Sandra Ish) are determined to save Liz and her teenaged daughter, Amanda (Victoria Saitz), from impending doom. Enlisting the help of Amanda’s on-and-off-again ex-boyfriend Trenner (Zane Walters), the women set out to derail Jackson’s upcoming camping trip with Amanda. Add a cop who could be Jackson’s twin and some awkward flirtation into the mix, strap on your hiking boots, and let the hijinks begin.

“Women in Jeopardy!” – Trenner and Mary

The cast is high-energy and hilarious, with an apparent knack for comedic timing. The characters feel comfortable in their own skins. Obvious chemistry between Rider, Ish, and Squire makes their friendship all the more convincing. Pallaziol is hair-raisingly entertaining in the role of Jackson, switching gears with ease to play the part of awkward and endearing lookalike Sergeant Kirk. Saitz is the portrait of a moody teenager, at times lovable and at others cringe-worthy. Walters is a hoot as Trenner, evoking a familiar brand of clumsy teenaged-male machismo with his stumbling attempts to wax poetic and fantasies à la Mrs. Robinson. We get the sense that he’s a good guy underneath the goofy exterior and raging hormones.

The show is aided by a capable creative team. Argo Thompson’s set transforms ingeniously from kitchen to ski shop, police station, and forested canyon. Props by Vicki Martinez and costume design by Ish help make the characters and their environments feel realistic. Sound design by Thompson and director Carla Spindt earns extra laughs with well-timed entrances of recognizable songs with fitting lyrics.

MacLeod’s script comes to an arguably rushed conclusion, making for a somewhat sudden and unsatisfying end to an otherwise enjoyable romp. “Women in Jeopardy!” is well worth attending nonetheless, thanks to an able ensemble, a heap of clever quips, and enough witty wordplay to keep audiences smiling the whole way home.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

“Women in Jeopardy!” by Wendy MacLeod

Left Edge Theatre, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403

Through May 27, 2018

Tickets: $25—$40

Info: 707-536-1620, www.leftedgetheatre.com

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Fascinating, Chilling “Marjorie Prime” at MTC – by Barry Willis

 

MTC: Marjorie Prime

Humanoid artificial intelligence is a long-running popular theme in science fiction, comic books, movies and TV shows—and a burgeoning reality. Major technology companies have already demonstrated believable prototypes. Cyborgs, androids, replicants—call them what you will—they are an inevitability, but theater pieces about them have been glaringly absent from the live performance stage.

That all changes with “Marjorie Prime,” Jordan Harrison’s incisive one-act, in which cyborgs (called “primes”) are therapeutic tools to help people deal with loss—of loved ones, or with memory. At Marin Theatre Company through May 27, the play is set in the near future—lead character Marjorie is an 86-year-old born in 1977—and imagines helpful, realistic androids that take on the appearance, personalities, and mannerisms of the departed. Marjorie (the fantastic Joy Carlin) is a faltering widow whose “prime” is a replica of her husband Walter as a thirty-something young man, portrayed with grace and stealth by Tommy Gorrebeck. Walter Prime provides companionship and fills in the blanks for Marjorie as she reminisces about the past. In doing so, he helps to make the past better for her than it actually may have been. When not engaged, he becomes silent and motionless, very much the way Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri reside in the background, waiting to be summoned.

Marjorie is a burden for her daughter Tess (Julie Eccles) and son-in-law Jon (Anthony Fusco), who provide her care. Their sometimes contentious relationship is also wrought with a problematic past and as the story progresses each of them gains or is replaced by his or her own prime, whose personalities evolve as they gain information. The spare dialog runs the gamut from nonsequitor to profound insight and spans the emotional spectrum from despair to hilarity. Marjorie confounds Tess and Jon with archaic references to a rock band called “ZZ Topp,” which they have never heard of, and quotes a Beyoncé song to their bafflement.

It’s a brilliant concept, and a brilliant script—a 2015 Pulitzer Prize finalist—superbly delivered by four supremely talented actors under the direction of Ken Rus Schmoll, on a simple modernistic set by Kimie Nishikawa, the passage of time conveyed by a few prop changes and some beautiful projections of summer sky and falling snow. “Marjorie Prime” is a stunning, thought-provoking bit of theater that deserves a sold-out house for each performance. It’s that good.

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

 

“Marjorie Prime”

Marin Theatre Company  397 Miller Ave.  Mill Valley CA 94941

Through May 27, 2018

Tickets: $10 – $44

Info: 415-388-5208 www.marintheatre.org

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! “Tinderella” Delights at Custom Made Theatre Co. – by Nicole Singley

Tinderella: Tinder Creeps

What if Cinderella were alive today, resigned to searching for her kale-munching, kombucha-swilling, flannel shirt-donning prince on an Internet dating app, adrift in a sea of creepy stalkers and unsolicited ‘dick pics?’

Running through May 26th at San Francisco’s Custom Made Theatre Co., modern musical “Tinderella” puts a wildly entertaining spin on an age-old classic, thrusting our beloved Disney princess into the harsh realities of 21st-century online dating. FaultLine Theater has partnered with Custom Made for the world premiere of a brilliant show three years in the making, attracting a remarkably young, enthusiastic audience with a story acutely relevant to millennials and Bay Area living, and poking plenty of fun at our newfound reliance on all things digital. (Boomers, be warned – some generational references may be lost in translation.)

Tinderella: Dylan & Meg

Once upon a time, (shortly after the release of the iPhone 5, but before the release of the iPhone 5C, we’re told), our princess Meg (Juliana Lustenader) naively yearns for the fairy-tale romance she grew up believing she was destined for. Her ordinary life feels inadequate when measured against the glamorous Facebook facades of her social media-savvy stepsisters, whose virtual personas exude the confidence and fulfillment Meg aspires to. But when gay fairy-god-roommate Dylan (the magnificent Branden Noel Thomas) introduces her to popular dating app Tinder, it seems as though her luck may be about to change. “If you’re straight, hot, and white,” he tells her, “Tinder is like magic, (more or less).”

Tinderella: Julie & Marcus

Meanwhile, in couples’ land, Julie (the exquisite Sarah Jiang) and Marcus (Jackson Thea) are at a crossroads. Marcus wants to settle down with Julie, move to Texas, buy a dog, and crank out a couple of kids. Julie, on the other hand, wants… well, she doesn’t exactly know yet, but she’s pretty sure it isn’t that. She urges him to take a step back and explore other options. Marcus does just that, inviting his new Tinder match Meg to a “super cool party” at his San Francisco apartment. Full of hope, Meg sets out to meet her prince, win his heart, and catch the last BART train back to Oakland before midnight. But in a world where success is measured in “likes” and love is found by “swiping right,” all bets for a happy ending are off.

The cellphone-toting ensemble is well balanced and superbly gifted, and vocal talent abounds. Thomas is dynamic, empathetic, and often hilarious as quesadilla-making, tough-loving Dylan, with a powerful voice and a flair for delivery. In lead roles, Thea and Lustenader are both convincing and cute and remain lovable despite lapses of self-centered blindness.

Tinderella: Selfies with Stepsisters

Adielyn Mendoza and Alex Akin are well cast as New York fashionista Allie and world-traveling, do-gooder Tanya (Meg’s not-so-evil stepsisters). Their excellent voices, though regrettably underutilized, are put to good use in “Picture Perfect” and “Reality Check,” calling out our obsession with ‘selfies’ and the false images of perfection we project online.

Jiang shines in a standout performance as undecided Julie, questioning whether she’s in the best place she can be (“The Best Place”) and ultimately helping lead us to one of the night’s most insightful revelations – that we are all sometimes guilty of forcing others to play a role in our own stories. It takes courage to shed our misguided fairy-tale notions and break free from the pressure to conform. “I’m not giving up on my dreams,” Julie explains to Marcus, “but I’m giving up on yours.” Jiang’s beautiful voice only accentuates her knack for acting and reacting to the other cast members throughout the show.

The production is punctuated by riotous, foot-tapping musical numbers like “Old School Chivalry,” “Slow Grind Love Song,” and “(You’re Gonna) F***ing Rock It.” Weston Scott’s lyrics are funny and sharp, pairing perfectly with Christian B. Schmidt’s hip, vibrant score. Meredith Joelle Charlson’s choreography adds much to the tear-inducing hilarity of lighter-hearted acts. The more solemn, introspective pieces are lovely, too, spotlighting some of the incredible voices on stage.

“Tinderella” is the sexy, hilarious, and highly enjoyable triumph of an immensely talented cast and creative team. You, too, may fall in love at first swipe.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

“Tinderella: The Modern Musical” by Rose Oser, Christian B. Schmidt, and Weston Scott, in partnership with FaultLine Theater

Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter St, San Francisco, CA 94102

Through May 26, 2018

Tickets: $25—$49

Info: (415) 798-2682, custommade.org

Recommended for mature audiences

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

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An ASR Technical Review! Venerable Farce Well Rendered. “Tartuffe” at B8 Theater – by Team ASR

NOTE: The following commentary is focused primarily on the production, direction, and technical aspects of the performing arts.

 

Tartuffe at B8

A perennial of the comedic stage to this day, Tartuffe (or The Impostor, or The Hypocrite) was first performed in 1664 as a five act play. It is one of the most famous comedies by Molière, who is widely recognized as the ‘father’ of comedic farce. Or at least French farce.

The original version of the play was first staged on May 12, 1664 as part of festivities known as Les Plaisirs de l’île enchantée held at a modest venue known as the Palace of Versailles. In more modern times, Gérard Depardieu directed and starred in the title role of Le Tartuffe, the 1984 French film based on this play. And for those with a more musical orientation, composer Kirke Mechem based his opera Tartuffe on the play as well.

In short — it’s a well-travelled piece of theater that unfolds thusly: Devious Monsieur Tartuffe charms his way into Monsieur Orgon’s household. Monsieur Tartuffe schemes to marry Monsieur Orgon’s lovely daughter, seduce Monsieur Orgon’s lovely wife, and run off with all of Monsieur Orgon’s lovely money.

Sacre bleu!

Despite urgent protests about  Monsier’s Tartuffe’s evil intents from the all knowing family maid, Monsieur Orgon remains entranced with Monsieur Tartuffe — despite the appalling (and obvious!) evidence of Tartuffe’s behavior(s).

Will Monsieur Orgon see through Monsieur Tartuffe the con man before it’s too late?

Molière spins religious piety and hypocrisy into high comedy in this hilarious and biting satire.

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:
B8 Theater is to be commended for taking an unlikely physical location (a building which once housed a bank, complete with walk-in vault) and adapting the interiors to the purposes of live theater. That said, their thrust stage configuration does, by necessity, limit their set design options. The set for this show was simple, complimentary, and well rendered by Peet Cocke.
Furniture was basic and complimentary. (Score: 6/10)

Set Construction:
Decent quality given constraints. See “Scenic Design”, above. (Score: 6/10)

Stage Management:
Kourtney Branum’s stage direction ensured timely entrances, light changes, and sound cues. Proficient; especially considering the stage manager is still in college at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, CA. She has a future ahead of her in stage management. (Score: 5/10)

Sound:
Spare but well rendered. Decent quality effects/music. (Score: 5/10)

Props:
As presented, this show does not require a lot of props. Adequate, uncluttered. (Score: 5/10)

Costumes:
Very nicely done. Other theater companies could (and should) take note of Jeremy Cole’s work. Impressive. (Score: 8/10)

Direction:
Rhyming dialog is always difficult to work with. Particularly when the source material is a couple of centuries old. Cadences differ from one age to another. In this show, the actors sometimes got caught-up in the rhythm to the detriment of the storyline.

On another note, one of the actors was given an accent to use with her character. This was a mistake (a) at this level of theater and (b) given the complex nature of the rhyming dialog. Directors would serve their audience better by being very selective in the use of accents at local or regional theater levels, unless the accent is native (first language) of the actor in question and then only if the actor enunciates and projects properly.

Directing in a ¾ thrust stage has challenges. This director kept the actors moving yet clearly advised them not to be too concerned about, of necessity, having their backs facing one part of the audience or another. We often see actors who are self-conscious in this situation which detracts from the overall performance.

General/overall direction by Jeremy Cole was proficient for this level of theater. (Score: 5.5/10)

Lights:
Functional, basic. Andrea Schwarz took care to see that the ¾ thrust stage was well lit from all perspectives. (Score: 5/10)

Casting:
Better than average casting for a theater at this level. Excellent performance by David Ghilardi as Orgon and Janelle Aguirre as Dorine. Ms. Aguirre’s performance was hampered by the accent selected for her character. This is lamentable especially considering the obvious natural acting talent demonstrated by this actor. (See “Directing”, above.) Michael Craigen as Damis also complimented the cast and show. (Score: 7.5/10)

Overall Production:
A challenging script written (originally in French) in rhyme. A ¾ thrust stage in what used to be a bank. A new theater company. These are usually cues which point ominously to a long night of theater ahead. In the case of B8, this was not the case. Bravo for trying such a challenging piece. Above average casting and costumes helped. (Score: 7/10)

Overall Score: 60/100. See this show.

 

TARTUFFE presented by B8 Theatre Company
written by Molière, translated by Ranjit Bolt, and directed by Jeremy Cole

CAST
Janelle Aguirre
Michael Craigen
April Culver
Kim Donovan
David Ghilardi
Ryan John
Tavis Kammet
Ann Kendrick
Sam Logan
Emanuel Morales

RUN DATES
April 5 – 21, 2018

RUN LOCATION
B8 Theatre — 2292 Concord Blvd (@ Colfax), Concord, CA

 

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians, dancers, technicians, stage managers, and a host of other arts folks.

We don’t name names for obvious reasons — and Team ASR often buys their own tickets and do not announce their presence as such at a performance — but it is important to note that each Team ASR review is screened by one or more ASR Editors to insure a ‘fair’ review, warts and all, when appropriate.

The goal of Team ASR Reviews is to communicate directly with the technical staffs who are largely ignored by most reviewers. These behind the scenes folks work their collective butt’s off to mount a show, and they deserve well-intentioned constructive criticism from fellow artists as appropriate — and ditto for well-earned praise.

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ASR Theater Review! Classic Musical Comedy: “La Cage aux Folles” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

 

La Cage aux Folles at 6th Street

 

Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse has revived the ever-popular classic musical comedy “La Cage aux Folles,” at the G.K. Hardt Theatre through May 20.

A Harvey Fierstein/Jerry Herman collaboration, this engaging piece about a nontraditional French Riviera family confronting a hyper-traditional one was a long-running Broadway hit, and has made the rounds of regional theater companies ever since. The story of a gay male couple—one a drag performer, the other the owner of the drag club—and their straight son, it was made into two hit movies, and was the basis for the more recent “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” set in Florida’s Gulf Coast, known to Southerners as “the Redneck Riviera.”

In the original, the couple must pretend to be straight in order to please their son’s future father-in-law, an ultraconservative reformist politician. Potential disaster for this politician ensues if he is found cavorting with “degenerates;” comedy issues forth as it often does when characters must unwillingly pretend to be other than what they are.

The show feels in some ways as quaintly innocent as the French romantic comedy “Boeing Boeing.” It’s no longer as outrageous as it was when it debuted, but its core issues make it still current. 6th Street’s production features Michael Conte as drag star “Zaza” and Anthony Martinez as nightclub owner Georges—both of them excellent, with Conte the standout as the petulant gender-bent performer. Lorenzo Alviso does a nice turn as their son Jean-Michel, and choreographer Joseph Favalora is a scream as their houseboy/housemaid Jacob. Michael Fontaine is very good as the reformist politician Dindon, whose election campaign is based on sweeping the Riviera clean of people like Zaza and Georges. Mo McElroy is solid in a cameo as restaurant owner Jacqueline, whose scheming could be Dindon’s undoing.

The show is anchored by a great band “in the pit” helmed by music director Ginger Beavers, and a team of flamboyant showgirls—not all of them organic—called “Les Cagelles.” Most forbidding among them is “Hanna from Hamburg” a whip-cracking redhead with the muscularity of an Olympic wrestler. A show that usually benefits from a lush set design, “La Cage” moves along briskly with an unusual minimalist set by Sam Transleau. It’s a fun outing that should be on the must-see list for North Bay theater fans.

 

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.

 

“La Cage aux Folles”

Directed by Russell Kaltschmidt

6th Street Playhouse

G.K. Hardt Theatre

52 W. 6th Street Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Tickets: $22 – $38

Info: 707- 523-4185, www.6thstreetplayhouse.com

Rating:  Four out of Five Stars.

 

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ASR Theater Review! Loose Cannon — ACT’s “Father Comes Home from the Wars” – by Barry Willis

A great old joke has it that “a camel is a horse designed by committee.” The same might be said about Civil War epic “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” directed by Liz Diamond, at American Conservatory Theater through May 20.

The committee in question is playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, an artist so deeply in love with her own voice that she can’t figure out what material fits and what needs to be jettisoned. She includes it all, like William Faulkner delivering to his editor his magnum opus in a wheelbarrow.

Unlike Faulkner, Parks didn’t have a ruthless editor to shape her material into something compelling. She instead offers a sprawling amalgam of history and personal quest that attempts to be both drama and comedy but ultimately succeeds as neither. The story at its core is quite simple: a slave named Hero (James Udom, superb) elects to serve as valet to his “boss master,” a Confederate colonel (Dan Hiatt) who has answered the call of duty and is headed to the war. Hero wonders if he should go or not, to the point of almost cutting off his own foot to render himself unfit, a fate that has already befallen his friend Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez). He’s also reluctant to say goodbye to his love Penny (Eboni Flowers) and other members of his community, but the lure of adventure, the intoxication of wearing a uniform, and the promise of freedom at the end of his servitude overwhelm his better judgment and off he goes. There are mentions of Hero’s dog Odyssey, who has run off, but we never see him.

James Udom

“Father Comes Home” follows a traditional three-act structure, with enough characters and plot devices to fill a two-season PBS series. In the first act, we meet Hero and other members of his community, their shabby housing represented by the rusty façade of a corrugated metal shack. (Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez.) This introduction, itself introduced by a mellifluous guitar-playing musician (Martin Luther McCoy, excellent), consumes the better part of an hour and segues directly into Act II, which finds Hero, the Colonel, and a wounded-and-captured Union soldier (Tom Pecinka) camped out in a forest within earshot of battle but safely away from it, the damage of war and the forest where they’re hiding represented by huge upended I-beams, more 1945 Berlin than 1865 Appomattox.

The Colonel preens, drinks, and rants, and during lulls in encroaching cannon fire, the three of them engage in a free-wheeling discussion of personal and social freedom, identity, status, value, ownership, man, god, law, and destiny. This act is exceptionally well done by three skilled actors and were it fully fleshed out might prove to be a satisfying resolution to the questions raised in Act I. Or not—the playwright might have her characters ask these questions and leave them for the audience to ponder.

Act III opens with the rusty shack superimposed on the remnants of war, with three runaway slaves cowering on its porch. Over the hill comes what appears to be a crazy homeless person in a wooly bathrobe, flitting about, flipping his hair and gushing about the fates of Hero and the Colonel. A new character introduced in the last act—Parks clearly disregards the laws of drama here—and one who had many in the opening night audience mumbling “WTF?” This crazy homeless person proves to be Odyssey, Hero’s missing dog, who has followed his master, at a distance, to the war and back and has come home to tell the tale. He’s comic relief, like the gravedigger in “Hamlet.”

Greg Wallace

A talking dog. We are now solidly in Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit territory.

Odyssey (ACT veteran Gregory Wallace) spins an elaborate tale, provoking many laughs, and informs the community that Hero isn’t dead as they believed, but in fact survived and is coming home. And Hero does just that, arriving with gifts for Homer and Penny, and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that he has copied by hand but never reads aloud. Their reunion is warm and reassuring until Hero lashes out wildly with his knife, slashing at the runaways, his friend Homer, and everyone near him. There is neither justification nor explanation for this outburst. Then he calms down to tell Penny that he has a wife on the way, and it isn’t her. The end, more or less.

Its stagecraft is very good, but “Father Comes Home” is lengthy (three hours), ponderous, and baffling. Parks has worked historical facts into fantasies that never fully take flight. Hero’s journey is an arduous one, especially for the audience, some of whom left at intermission. That may have made for a more fulfilling evening at the theater.

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.

 

“Father Comes Home from the Wars” by Suzan-Lori Parks

Directed by Liz Diamond

American Conservatory Theater

Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street San Francisco

Tickets: $15 – $110 Info: www.act-sf.org

Rating: Three out of Five Stars

 

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ASR Theater Review! Refreshing “Water by the Spoonful” at Raven Performing Arts Theater – by Nicole Singley

Playing through May 13th at Healdsburg’s Raven Performing Arts Theater, Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful” is a complex and heartfelt exploration of poor choices and personal trauma, the difficult road to recovery, and the unlikely lifelines that help keep us afloat.

Elliot (Bill Garcia) is an Iraq War veteran and aspiring actor, reduced to making Subway sandwiches while caring for the ailing aunt who raised him. Carrying the scars of a troubled childhood and his time in Iraq, he is haunted by agonizing guilt, devastating loss, and the grudge he harbors against his mother. We gather shocking pieces of his past throughout the show. Garcia is believable as Elliot, and his energy is complemented by the talented Serena Elize Flores as cousin Yazmin.

Elliot’s mother Odessa (played effectively by Athena Gundlach) is a recovering crack addict who runs an Internet chat room for others battling addiction. “Haikumom,” as she’s known online, devotes the majority of her time to helping chat-room regulars “Orangutan” (Hande Gokbas) and “Chutes&Ladders” (Nicholas James Augusta) in their daily struggles to stay clean. Though largely isolated from her family and the outside world, Odessa finds redeeming purpose and connection in her virtual haven. But when Elliot comes home to confront the skeletons in his family’s closet, her fragile peace is threatened.

The performers are capable and well cast, and a few scenes into opening night, began to really find their groove. Matt Farrell feels natural in the role of self-centered chat-room newcomer “Fountainhead,” slowly coming to terms with the truth of his addiction. Gokbas is endearing as “Orangutan,” her passion and determination to move forward a much-needed boon to “Chutes&Ladders” as he wrestles with the fear of shaking up his safe routine. The evolution of their relationship from virtual to actual is both moving and uplifting.

A minimalistic set puts our focus on the actors and leaves much to the imagination. Clever projections illuminate to indicate when chat room members are online. The venue adds a fitting element of openness and vulnerability, enhancing the show’s emotional impact without keeping the audience at too great a distance.

Quiara Alegría Hudes has written a story about broken people, and the humanity with which she’s brought each character to life is evident under Steven David Martin’s compassionate direction. While the ending she has given us is not exactly happy, it is hopeful.

“Water by the Spoonful” challenges us to find the courage to face our own demons and the strength to do better. Redemption and atonement, it suggests, are made possible by the powers of forgiveness and human connection.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

“Water by the Spoonful” by Quiara Alegría Hudes

Raven Performing Arts Theater, 15 North St, Healdsburg, CA 95448

Through May 13, 2018

Tickets: $10-$25

Info: (707) 433-6335, www.raventheater.org

Recommended for mature audiences

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Journeying “Into the Woods” with SRJC’s Theatre Arts Department – by Nicole Singley

Santa Rosa Junior College’s production of beloved musical “Into the Woods,” running through May 6th at the Maria Carrillo High School Theatre, enchants audiences with an imaginative mash-up of famous fairy tale figures set to witty tunes by Stephen Sondheim.

Thanks to the curse of a hideous witch (Alanna Weatherby), a baker and his wife (Brett Mollard and Katie Smith) are unable to have the child they so desperately desire. To break the hex, they must venture into the woods to find four ingredients the witch needs to brew a special potion. Their paths soon cross with classic characters like Little Red Riding Hood (Serena Poggi), Cinderella (Ella Park), Rapunzel (Shayla Nordby), and Jack (Levi Sterling), each on a quest of their own.

The first act is fast-paced, funny, and feel-good, wrapping up neatly with the promise of ‘happily ever after.’ In the second chapter, however, all hope for a fairy-tale ending is quickly – and quite literally – crushed. The pace slows and the comedy wanes as we are forced to confront harsh realities in the ‘ever after.’ As our characters soon learn the hard way, getting what we think we want doesn’t always pan out the way we hope it will.

SRJC has assembled an energetic and enthusiastic cast, whose efforts transcended the distraction of some unfortunate technical difficulties at the opening night performance. Smith brings a charming candor and sense of comedic timing to the role of Baker’s Wife, and Mollard aptly matches her charisma. Their convincing banter propels the plot and keeps the laughter coming. Background characters add much to the amusement, too, manifesting as curious rabbits and cleverly-clad deer among other accessory roles. Siobhan Aida O’Reilly delivers a standout performance as Jack’s beloved cow, Milky-White, who at times steals the show with her expressive gestures and winning mannerisms. Victor Santoyo Cruz is hilarious in brief appearances as Hen and Dwarf.

Music drives much of the story’s action, and while Sondheim’s lyrics are sharp and entertaining, the songs often struggle to find their melody. On the whole this troupe rises to the challenge, with noteworthy vocal performances by Weatherby and Cooper Bennett (Cinderella’s Prince not-so-charming). The actors are accompanied by a live off-stage orchestra.

This production is a feast for the eyes thanks to Maryanne Scozzari’s creative, quirky costumes and Peter Crompton’s elaborate and absorbing set, evoking the magic and opulence of grand libraries past. Books act as fluttering birds and rolling shelves transform into horses. Papier-mâché masks are made from pages lined with text, and kitchen gloves become cow udders. Rather than detracting from the action, the visuals are impactful and effectively enhance the story.

Clocking in at around two and a half hours, “Into the Woods” makes for a long but enjoyable night at the theater, and remains family-friendly despite the darker turn things take in Act II.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

“Into the Woods,” by Santa Rosa Junior College Theatre Arts Department

2.5 hours, with one 15-minute intermission

Maria Carrillo High School Theatre, 6975 Montecito Blvd, Santa Rosa, CA 95409

Through May 6, 2018

Tickets: $12-$22

Info: (707) 527-4307, http://theatrearts.santarosa.edu/

Recommended for ages 12 and above

Rating: Three-and-a-half out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Outrageously Great Fun; “Head Over Heels” at the Curran – by Barry Willis

 

San Francisco’s Curran Theater is the last stop before Broadway for “Head Over Heels,” the delightful new musical featuring the songs of 1980s girl group the Go-Go’s.

Reputedly the most successful female pop group of all time, the Go-Go’s helped define the decade with a long run of infectious tunes, given new life in this stupendously quirky production. The opening scene is a fantastically well-done ensemble performance of “We Got the Beat” under a proscenium arch emblazoned with the faux-Latin slogan “Habemus Percussivo.”

Developed by Jeff Whitty from “The Arcadia” by Sir Philip Sidney, adapted by James Magurder, and directed by Michael Mayer, “Head Over Heels” is a pseudo-Shakespearean romantic comedy about a royal family seeking to prevent a prophecy of doom. This involves a troublesome journey to Bohemia, foreboding appearances by a transgendered oracle, mistaken identities, gender-fluid coupling, class-defying hookups, a self-doubting monarch, and some of the most spectacularly whimsical sets ever conceived—all of it propelled by the Go-Go’s great thumping pop-rock, done live by an ace all-female band above and behind the stage. Spencer Liff’s choreography is superb right from the opening drum whack.

Head Over Heels: A New Musical

The story concerns Basilius, the King of Arcadia (Jeremy Kushnier) and his wife, Queen Gynecia (Rachael York) who are seeking a proper marriage partner for their eldest daughter Pamela (Bonnie Milligan). Pamela’s little journey of self-discovery includes the realization that she isn’t all that interested in men, but her sister Philoclea (Alexandra Socha) is—especially Musidorus (Andrew Durand), a handsome shepherd boy with an exaggeratedly Shakespearean manner of speech. His speech is so ornate that at moments the other characters—no elocutionary slouches themselves—interrupt him and demand that he “speak English.”

Class distinctions prevent any immediate linkup between Musidorus and Philoclea. Disguising himself as “Cleophila,” an Amazon warrior woman in Roman armor and a fluffy blonde wig, he joins the travelling party and is soon the object of affection for the king himself. The Queen has a wandering eye, too. Central to the plot is the budding love affair between the marvelously comical Pamela and her maidservant Mopsa (Taylor Iman Jones), who also happens to be the daughter of the king’s goofy viceroy Dametas (Tom Alan Robbins). Anchoring the production, Jones is wonderfully confident in her role, and a tremendous singer, as proven during Mopsa’s contemplative visit to the island of Lesbos, where she gives the song “Vacation” a whole new meaning.

Kushier does likewise with “Lust to Love,” reinterpreted late in the saga as a revenge song during a sword fight between the king and Musidorus. No worries! Everyone lives—and loves—happily ever after.

Head Over Heels: Peppermint

Arianne Phillips’s costumes, Kevin Adams’s lighting, Andrew Lazarow’s projections, Kai Harada’s sound, and Julian Crouch’s set design all make huge contributions to the wild success that is “Head Over Heels.” The primary actors are superb, as are the ensemble, all of them veterans of multiple big-time musicals. The result is a stunning powerhouse performance that brought the opening night crowd to its feet in sustained appreciation—a crowd, it must be mentioned, younger and more boisterous than typically fills San Francisco’s big theaters, and one that lingered for the after-party in the lobby, enjoying the music of the B-52s, Talking Heads, Devo, and many other contemporaries of the Go-Go’s.

“Head Over Heels” is simply an outrageously over-the-top good time. It may be the most fun you will ever have in a theater.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

What: “Head Over Heels,” the Go-Go’s Musical.

130 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission

Where: The Curran Theater, 455 Geary St., San Francisco, CA 94102

When: Through May 6, 2018.

Tickets: $29-$175

Info: 415-358-1220, SFCURRAN.com

Rating: Five Out of Five Stars

 

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ASR Theater Review! “Death of a Salesman” Revived at 6th Street Playhouse – by Nicole Singley

Arthur Miller’s celebrated “Death of a Salesman,” enjoying an extended run through April 28th at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse, tells the tale of washed-up traveling salesman Willy Loman (Charles Siebert) struggling to make sense of his financial and familial failures in mid-twentieth century New York.

Facing constant debt and a crumbling career, Willy’s life is held together only by the loyalty of long-suffering wife Linda (Sheila Lichirie) and generosity of best friend Charley (Al Kaplan). A lifetime of blind idealism and pride has cost him not only the realization of his ‘American Dream,’ but has poisoned his relationship with eldest son and former high school star athlete Biff (Edward McCloud), who, for reasons revealed in a series of painful flashbacks, could not live up to his father’s lofty expectations. Willy’s life unravels before our eyes as we watch him oscillate between outbursts of anger and frustration, succumb to confusion and helplessness, and grasp at the remaining shreds of misguided optimism that had once propelled him forward.

Most of the action occurs at the Loman family’s rundown home, now overshadowed by the towering apartment buildings of Brooklyn’s increasingly crowded skyline. Its drab furnishings and perpetually breaking-down appliances serve as a fitting backdrop for the deteriorating dreams of its inhabitants. This hits home during some of Willy’s eruptions. (“Once in my life I would like to own something outright before it’s broken! ….you pay mortgage for 10 years and more and by the time it’s actually yours, you’re old and so is the house.”) Artistic Director Craig A. Miller and Technical Director Conor Woods have designed a clever set which fluidly transforms into offices, hotel rooms, and restaurants throughout the show.

In the ever-evolving landscape of advancing technology and planned obsolescence, Willy Loman is the enduring portrait of a discarded worker. It is a profoundly relevant story still today, and the cast and crew at 6th Street Playhouse have more than done it justice. Siebert adds another accomplishment to his already impressive resume with a truly first-rate performance, paying homage to Miller’s protagonist in all of his complexities. His dynamic energy is well matched by a capable cast, with notable performances by Lichirie as the admirably patient and pitiable Linda, McCloud as golden-child-turned-black-sheep Biff, and Ariel Zuckerman as younger brother Happy, following in the overly-eager and naïve footsteps of his ailing father. Supporting roles are superbly acted, too, and the result is a cohesive and emotionally impactful experience audiences will not soon forget.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

“Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller

Through April 28, 2018

6th Street Playhouse Studio Theatre, 52 W 6th St, Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Tickets: $18 – $28

Info: 707-523-4185, www.6thstreetplayhouse.com

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

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ASR Theater Review! SF Playhouse’s Haunting “The Effect” – by Barry Willis

In “The Effect,”  at San Francisco Playhouse through April 28, a clinical drug trial goes off the rails when two test subjects fall in love, and two supervising psychiatrists revisit an old affair.

The story plays out over a few weeks in a lab belonging to the fictional Rauschen pharmaceutical company. Two young trial volunteers, Connie Hall and Tristan Frey (Ayelet Firstenberg and Joe Estlack, respectively) have signed up to test an experimental antidepressant, ostensibly because they need the money, although that is never made explicit.

Lead researcher Dr. Toby Sealey (Robert Parsons) has great hopes for the potential of this new drug to raise levels of dopamine, a substance naturally present in the brain, but depleted in depressed people. His one-time lover Dr. Lorna James (Susi Damilano) is directly in charge of administering incrementally increasing doses to her subjects and monitoring their behavior. She tries vainly to intervene when Connie and Tristan get involved with each other, because love’s pleasure also raises dopamine levels, potentially masking the effect of the drug. She also tries vainly to suppress lingering feelings for Dr. Sealey, a man she dismisses as “the most notorious fuck-around on the conference circuit.”

Playwright Lucy Prebble’s fascinating script examines the nature of love and mental illness, calls into question scientific objectivity, and makes a deserving target of pharmaceuticals with marginal benefits and many deadly side effects. Dr. James does likewise – she remarks to Dr. Sealey that “the history of medicine is the history of placebos” and later predicts that “one day we will look back on all this chemical-imbalance stuff like the four humors.” Their relationship does not blossom anew. It’s implied that Dr. Sealey may enjoy a big payout if the trial’s results are positive.

Set designer Nina Ball is at her best here, evoking the vaguely pleasant but impersonal nature of corporate environments, with superb help from projections designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker, whose video graphics are chillingly effective.

Director Bill English gets a powerful performance from his cast of four. The show’s dark trajectory is interrupted here and there by moments of near-comedy, but the light at the end of its tunnel doesn’t shine on Dr. James. “The Effect” is a well-done theatrical rarity that entertains, informs, and provokes in equal measure.

 

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

“The Effect” by Lucy Prebble

Through April 28

San Francisco Playhouse

450 Post Street, San Francisco

Tickets: $25 – $100

Info: www.sfplayhouse.org

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

 

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Aisle Seat Review! Keeping Up with “The Realistic Joneses” at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

The Realistic Joneses, at Left Edge Theatre through March 25th, offers a hilarious and heart-wrenching glimpse into the lives of two couples who share an ordinary last name and an extraordinary fate.

The show opens on Bob (Chris Schloemp) and Jennifer (played ably by the talented Melissa Claire) sitting together in their back yard. Jennifer is struggling to make conversation with her reticent husband when neighborhood newcomers John and Pony barge in with a bottle of wine, eager to make an introduction. The exchange becomes only more strained as awkward small talk strays into the gravely personal.

As the couples’ lives begin to intertwine, unlikely connections form between the characters as they seek solace in each other’s spouses. What unfolds is a darkly comic exploration of the bonds between those who are unable or unwilling to confront life’s biggest hurdles, and those who are left alone to face them.

Chris Ginesi delivers a compelling and nuanced performance as John, eliciting plenty of laughter along the way and a few surprising tears in a heartbreaking revelation to Jennifer. Paige Picard shines as ditzy Pony, who we are not sure whether to pity, adore or detest. And we cannot decide whether to laugh or cringe at Bob’s giddy and bumbling advances toward his new neighbor’s wife. Jennifer acts as the story’s anchor, evoking as much compassion as she offers to her cohorts. At every turn, the cast excels and their chemistry is palpable.

Food for thought about marriage, mortality, coping mechanisms, and human connection, this cleverly written show makes for a highly entertaining and uncomfortable 90 minutes – rife with laughter – that will stay with theatergoers long after the curtain closes.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

“The Realistic Joneses” by Will Eno

Through March 25, 2018

Left Edge Theatre, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403

Tickets: $25 – $40

Info: 707-536-1620, www.leftedgetheatre.com

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

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ASR Theatre Review! Quirky, Fascinating “Wolves” at MTC – by Barry Willis

 

A high-performing athletic team is very much a family, with all the closeness, cohesion, and dysfunctionality that “family” implies.

“The Wolves,” at Marin Theatre Company through April 8, is about one such family—a girls’ soccer team angling for a national championship. We never see them compete. Instead, all the action plays out before each game, on an indoor practice field where they train and rib each other about everything from typical teenage interests—parents, boyfriends, school—to issues they only partly understand, such as world geography and historical events.

Playwright Sarah Delappe has an expert’s ear for teen patois—her girls stammer and stall for time by inserting “like” in every other phrase, in near-universal rising intonation. She also has an intimate knowledge of athletes’ rough-and-tumble camaraderie—there are plenty of “f-bombs” hurled, none intended to harm, and the players, identified only by the numbers on their jerseys, often call each other “dude.” There’s a surplus of this stuff in the opening scene, which almost comes off as an overlong Saturday Night Live sketch, but the storyline takes a somber turn with the appearance of a talented new teammate claiming never to have played organized “football,” followed by a potentially career-ending knee injury to the Wolves’ star striker.

It gets more serious still with a tragedy that befalls the team, threatening to derail all their hard work, but they quite believably close ranks, more united than ever. It’s a beautiful moment about the empowering potential of loyalty and friendship.

Director Morgan Green coaxes excellent performances out of her ten-woman cast, all of them stage veterans and for the most part young enough to pass as high-schoolers. Of particular note are Portland Thomas as #11, with an amazingly relaxed and natural performance, and the energetic Sango Tajima as team captain #25, who pushes her comrades with a drill instructor’s grit and the shouting of almost comical slogans like “Teamwork makes the dream work!” Liz Sklar is outstanding in a cameo as the distraught Soccer Mom.

Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission, “The Wolves” is a captivating production and an unusual undertaking for Marin Theatre Company, which will host a final-day performance by the troupe’s understudies, most of them real high-school girls from Marin County. Their nickname: the “Wolf Pups.”

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.

 

“The Wolves” by Sarah Delappe

Through April 15, 2018

Marin Theatre Company

397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley, CA 94941

Tickets: $10 – $49 Info: 415-388-5208, boxoffice@marintheatre.org

Rating: Three-and-a-Half out of Five Stars

 

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ASR Theater Review! Tremendous “Ladies of Broadway” – by Barry Willis

Transcendence Theatre Company specializes in big-production mashups of classic Broadway musicals. The group’s spectacular “Broadway Under the Stars” has been a wine country summer destination for several years.

A recent addition to the Transcendence repertoire is “The Ladies of Broadway,” running the weekends of March 17-18 at the Marin Veterans Auditorium and March 24-25 at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa. It’s a showcase for seven hyper-talented female veterans of Broadway musicals, with backing by a huge and huge-sounding theater band.

Neither a classic musical nor a classic revue of showtunes, its premise is a loosely-connected story in which each performer relates her aspirations, travails, and successes in landing leading roles in big long-running musicals: Momma Mia, An American in Paris, Hairspray, Legally Blonde, We Will Rock You, Motown the Musical, and Wicked among them. There are also plenty of references to older blockbusters, including the works of Stephen Sondheim and Bob Fosse.

Every one of these young women is a double- or triple-threat, meaning they can sing, act, dance, and in some cases, play instruments or do gymnastics. All of them have fantastic stage presence, perfect comic timing, enormous huge vocal range, perfect pitch, and the ability to rattle the back wall of an auditorium without the use of microphones. Their solos are wonderful and their harmonies exquisite.

The show is a fast-moving feast of upbeat tunes, self-deprecating humor and quick-change antics that brings the audience to its feet not only at the show’s close but at intermission as well.

“Ladies of Broadway” is one of the most stunning assemblages of talent you will see on one stage this year—two hours of tremendous fun and an entertainment bargain. Don’t miss it!

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.

“The Ladies of Broadway” by Transcendence Theatre Company

March 24-25

Luther Burbank Center for the Arts

Tickets: $39 – $139 Info: 877-424-1414, www.BestNightEver.org

Rating:  Five out of Five Stars

 

*****     *****     *****     *****     *****     

 

ASR Theater Review! Superb “By the Water” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center – by Barry Willis

 

A community devastated by a natural disaster is the setting for Sharyn Rothstein’s gritty family drama “By the Water,” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, through April 8. Directed by Carl Jordan, the production is exceptionally appropriate in the wake of last fall’s fires that swept through Sonoma and Napa counties.

Six years ago, Hurricane Sandy wreaked massive destruction throughout the East Coast. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed and many more dwellings were left uninhabitable. Mike Pavone and Mary Gannon Graham portray Marty and Mary Murphy, a middle-aged couple living in what remains of one such home, in a neighborhood where they raised two sons to adulthood and where they knew all their neighbors. The extreme likelihood of another massive storm has prompted a government program to level the whole area after buying out everyone who lived there. Marty is opposed to the buyout and adamant about rebuilding his home and neighborhood, and has launched a mostly one-man crusade to get his neighbors on-board.

The buyout offer is viewed by many as a godsend—especially by the Murphys’ friends Andrea and Philip (Madeleine Ashe and Clark Miller)—but Marty persists, alienating those he cares about most, including his devout Catholic wife and his son Sal (Mark Bradbury) a quiet supporter of his parents and wayward brother Brian (Jared N. Wright), recently released from prison and doing his best to stay clean—an effort reinforced by rekindled affection for his friend Emily (Katie Kelley).

Marty’s motivation for his rebuilding crusade is a mix of attachment to a lost way of life and a hidden personal agenda that’s pried out of him in a heartrending revelation. The script and cast are uniformly excellent, believable in everything from their slightest gestures to their accurate Staten Island accents. A strong but sensitive director, Jordan excels at casting, and here he has assembled a ideal team who perfectly blend their characters’ interwoven histories and explicit interactions. The whole affair plays out in what’s left of the Murphy home—damp, moldy, stripped-to-the-studs, and open to the elements—a grimly effective set by Eddy Hansen, who also designed the lighting.

The story has many parallels to “Death of a Salesman”—a failed businessman with personal secrets, a long-suffering wife, sons with problems, a neighborhood in transition, loyal neighbors—but has uplifting elements that “Salesman” lacks: moments of warm humor, and a resolution implying all that’s possible through forgiveness, loyalty, and love. It’s a wonderful redemption story, certainly the best production currently running in the North Bay. “By the Water” isn’t magical realism but something better: realistic magic.

 

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle.

 

“By the Water” Directed by Carl Jordan

Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Studio Theatre

5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park, CA

Tickets: $28

Info: 707-588-3400 www.ci.rohnertpark.ca.us/city_hall/departments/spreckels_performing_arts_center/

Rating: Five Stars — Out of Five Stars

 

*****     *****     *****     *****     *****

 

ASR Theater Review! Main Stage West’s Compelling “Blackbird” – by Barry Willis

You can’t escape your past.  In David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” an industrial production manager named Ray (John Shillington) discovers this late one day when a young woman named Una (Sharia Pierce) shows up unannounced at his workplace.

In their awkward protracted reunion we learn that she was his lover at the tender age of twelve, when he was approximately forty. A scandal consumed him and the town he lived in, to the extent that he vanished, changed his name, and tried to put it all behind him.

But perhaps by accident, now-adult Una has discovered his new identity and location and has driven hundreds of miles to try to resolve all that was left dangling—a massive shared bundle of guilt, shame, obsession, and still-smoldering attraction that bursts into flames at least once in their brief meeting. No resolution is possible, but the script and the two talented actors cover huge emotional territory in the eighty minutes they spend together in the grimy confines of a disheveled break room (set design by David Lear, who also directed).

Intentionally stilted exposition makes the plot a bit slow to roll out, but once it does, it gains unstoppable momentum. Pierce and Shillington give a fiercely passionate performance of two people linked by irresistible but doomed attraction, frightening in its depth but illuminated by moments of levity. “Blackbird’s” dark realism will startle you and give you plenty to think about when you’ve left the theater.

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.

 

“Blackbird” by David Harrower

Through April 7th

Main Stage West  104 North Main Street  Sebastopol, CA 95472

Tickets: $15-$30 Info: 707-823-0177

Contact@mainstagewest.com

Rating: Three-and-a-half Stars

 

*****     *****     *****     *****     *****

 

ASR Theater Review! Exuberant Romp — “Mystery of Edwin Drood” from Marin Onstage – by Barry Willis

At San Rafael’s Belrose Theatre through March 31 and directed by Patrick Nims, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is an exuberant romp of a musical. Based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens, the show features eleven performers, all but two of them women, and approximately two dozen clever songs, all written by Rupert Holmes (of “The Pina Colada Song” fame), who also authored the book, lyrics, and musical arrangements.

Set in England in 1870, the complicated story—really too complicated to follow closely—involves the disappearance of Drood (Madison Scarborough), a dastardly act perhaps attributable to his romantic rival John Jasper (Andre Amarotico, excellent). The culprit may just as easily be any one of multiple characters who mingle with the audience before the show officially begins. That’s the mystery, and as the show progresses plenty of hints get dropped about which one may be the guilty party, so that the audience can vote near the end.

There are supposedly multiple endings written and rehearsed for each potential outcome, but it’s also possible that time constraints dictate a fixed outcome. In either case, the show sails along quickly and the audience has a jolly time participating. It’s very much “murder mystery dinner theater” without the dinner.

The women playing most of the characters are members of the fictional Music Hall Royale, “a ladies’ theatrical society,” we are frequently reminded by the Royale’s Chairman, played brilliantly but understatedly by Jill Wagoner. Their characters are mostly men—hence the onstage prevalence of 19th century male drag—but not all: one of the most feminine is also one of the most untrustworthy, Princess Puffer (Paula Gianetti at her over-the-top best), an opium dealer and on opening night, winner of the most votes as the likely murderess. The approximately two dozen songs that propel the show are energetically and engagingly performed (music direction by Daniel Savio, choreography by Kate Kenyon) even if they aren’t very memorable.

Set designer Gary Gonser worked his tail off to create a versatile quick-change environment and a batch of sight gags that function perfectly in the small space of the Belrose. Wagoner, as mentioned, is brilliant, and her castmates aren’t far behind. A young talent worth watching is Jack Covert as Master Nick Cricker, Jr., who introduces the show and here and there helps kick it along. Covert is an eighth grader with already formidable theatrical skills and one who will go far in the business if he sticks with it.

“Drood,” as it is usually called in theatrical circles, is a ludicrous lighthearted romp with much to recommend it. Put your serious business on hold and have fun at the theater.

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.

 

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” by Marin Onstage

The Belrose Theatre, 1415 5th Avenue, San Rafael, through March 31.

Tickets: $12-$27

Info: 415-290-1433 www.marinonstage.com

Rating: Three-and-a-half-stars

 

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** 

 

ASR Theater Review! Quirky, Charming “Tenderly” at Napa’s Lucky Penny — by Barry Willis

Pop singer and sometimes actress Rosemary Clooney was among an endless procession of performers and celebrities with a complex of personal and professional problems (depression, marital discord, drug addiction) exacerbated by changing public tastes, waning popularity, and financial distress. Her career spanned the post-WWII era into the late 1960s, and resumed in the late 1970s when she reinvented herself as a jazz vocalist and nostalgia act.

Directed by Dyan McBride, “Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical,” at Lucky Penny Productions in Napa through March 11, picks up her story at the moment in 1968 when after a breakdown she reluctantly goes under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Victor Monke (Barry Martin). How she got there—from her origin in a small Kentucky town to international fame as a Hollywood icon with a series of unreliable high-profile husbands—is told in flashback, punctuated with very good performances of her most popular songs, such as “Hey There,” “I Remember You,” “Mambo Italiano,” “Sway,” and the show’s title song, backed by a solid instrumental trio led by Music Director Craig Burdette.

Lucky Penny Artistic Director Taylor Bartolucci gives a spirited portrayal of Clooney, masking her character’s ambition with a disarming amount of small-town self-disparagement. Bartolucci the actress nails the accent, attitude, and mannerisms while Bartolucci the singer does likewise with the songs’ melodies and phrasing, even though her irrepressible and totally enjoyable vibrato makes her singing only an approximation of Clooney’s.

The company’s Managing Director Barry Martin is excellent as the understanding but gently persistent Dr. Monke. Martin takes on multiple roles with only small changes in prop or costume, including Clooney’s mother, sister, and brother; her twice-husband Jose Ferrer, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby. His mellifluous baritone is especially suited to the Crosby bit, and he employs it beautifully in a duet with Bartolucci.

The elegant compact set serves as medical office/hospital, the Clooney home, and several performance venues, with changes mostly provided by April George’s lighting. This combined with Martin’s instant morphing from one character to another keeps “Tenderly” moving along briskly. The show is especially appealing for fans from Clooney’s era but should also prove entertaining for younger ones eager to learn more about her. Best of all, it ends on an uplifting note with the late-career Clooney in full command of her life both onstage and off. Be thankful she didn’t take a desperate early exit the way so many have.

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.

 “Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical”

Through March 11, 2018

Lucky Penny Productions

Community Arts Center, 1758 Industrial Way, Napa, CA 94558

Info: www.luckypennynapa.com, 707-266-6305

 

Rating: Three-and-a-half-stars

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Theater Review! A Tremendous “Equus” at 6th Street Playhouse — by Barry Willis

 

Passion, religion, sexual fixation, and the concept of normalcy all get fully examined in Peter Shaffer’s multiple award-winning “Equus,” at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa through February 25. In it, a disillusioned child psychiatrist treats a severely uncommunicative teenage boy who has mutilated some horses after a pair of back-to-back personal traumas. The overworked Dr. Dysart (Craig A. Miller) reluctantly takes on the case of Alan Strang (Ryan Severt) at the insistence of magistrate Hesther Salomon (Tara Howley), who tells him she has never encountered such a shocking case.

When Dysert first meets the nearly mute Alan, the boy can recite only snippets of commercial jingles from television. Dysart discovers that he was primed for both trauma and asocial behavior by a religious fanatic mother (Juliet Noonan) and a cold undemonstrative father (John Shillington). Alan’s eventual “cure” will give him an acceptably boring existence while depriving him of the deep meaning he finds in his self-constructed personal religion. Dysert despises this necessary compromise and realizes that in the process of treating Alan, he is assuming much of the boy’s karmic burden.

It’s a powerful tale that’s as relevant today as it was when it debuted in 1973, a fact that prompted 6th Street artistic director Miller to produce it. His instinct was perfect. This production is one of a current crop of hyper-relevant shows running in North Bay theaters, and one of the best. Strongly but sensitively directed by Lennie Dean, “Equus” benefits from tremendous performances in major roles (Miller, Severt, Noonan) plus superb ensemble work by actors in multiple secondary roles. Outstanding here is Chandler Parrott-Thomas, who plays Jill, a free-spirited girl who recruits Alan to work at a stable, and later attempts unsuccessfully to seduce him, with unexpectedly disastrous results.

Conor Woods’s deceptively simple, utilitarian set works wonderfully in helping the production move along quickly with minimum changes. Slow-to-launch exposition initially hampers the first act, which soon gains momentum sufficient to get airborne. After that it sails along gloriously. The only other drawback is some unevenness with the British accents. The play originated in the UK, but the story isn’t inherently British. It would work just as well in the American idiom.

These are exceedingly small quibbles, of course. “Equus” is a gripping, superbly well-rendered tale that will haunt you long after leaving the theater. Emphatically recommended for theatergoers who may have seen it long ago, as well as for those who’ve never had the opportunity. It’s a revelation.

Rating: Four-and-a-half out of Five Stars

 

Barry Willis is Senior Editor at Aisle Seat Review, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and President of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

Peter Shaffer’s “Equus,” directed by Lennie Dean

Studio Theater, 6th Street Playhouse

52 W 6th St, Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Through February 25, 2018 Info: www.6thstreetplayhouse.com

 

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** 

 

ASR Theater Review! Compelling, Baffling “Buried Child” Unearthed at Main Stage West — by Barry Willis

Be glad that the prolific Sam Shepard worked out his issues through writing rather than by spraying a shopping mall with an automatic weapon. His stuff is as dark and forbidding as a cemetery on a cold December night.

Ably directed by Elizabeth Craven, “Buried Child,” at Main Stage West in Sebastopol through February 25, is a baffling portrait of the ultimate dysfunctional family. Set in an Illinois farmhouse, it opens with a cantankerous exchange between family patriarch Dodge (John Craven) and his unseen harridan wife Halie (Laura Jorgensen), whose shouted responses intermittently remind him of God’s bounty and the mercies of Jesus. Dodge is in ill health, unable to rise from the ratty sofa on which he lies, but is sufficiently motivated to nip from a hidden bottle, smoke one cigarette after another, and ramble on semi-coherently.

Enter Tilden (Keith Baker), a monosyllabic moron, with an armload of freshly picked corn. He’s presumably the son of Dodge and Halie, although that’s never made explicit, as is Bradley (Eric Burke), another developmentally challenged offspring with a missing leg. Bradley does a savage job of cutting his sleeping father’s hair then spends the remainder of his time onstage hiding under blankets and spouting argumentative comments. At some point a younger member of the clan shows up: Vince (Sam Coughlin). None of his relatives recognize or acknowledge him even though he repeatedly badgers them to do so. Vince’s girlfriend Shelly (Ivy Rose Miller) is the only one who’s rational enough to begin to make sense of what’s going on, but as the audience’s point-of-view character, she’s as mystified as we are.

Vince leaves for a couple of days. Nobody notices. Tilden harvests fresh carrots from the presumably fallow farm. Halie appears with local minister Father Dewis (Dwayne Stincelli) in tow, the two of them sharing a flask and apparently in the full flower of a forbidden affair. There are some erratic tangential comments about proper Christian behavior. Vince returns, drunk and raging. The family argues about another son who may or may not have been real. Dodge reveals a long-suppressed secret. Shelly leaves. The end.

There’s not a clue in any of this as to what it’s all about, other than the meanness and arbitrary meaninglessness of life, and bottomless darkness lurking beneath the surface. Imagine American redneck angst scrutinized by Pinter or Beckett.

The playbill puts the script’s time at 1978, but it feels much earlier—the 1930s or ’50s perhaps. The disjointed storyline isn’t far from an episode of the Cartoon Network’s “Squidbillies;” the aesthetic is right out of “The Twilight Zone.”

“Buried Child” is solidly presented by a cast of talented veteran actors, and at the very least is damned interesting even if we learn nothing—a theatrical curiosity, if you will.

Some theatergoers may even interpret it as comedy. At slightly under two hours running time it won’t make you wish you had somewhere else to be. Just don’t expect to come away with new insight or understanding about rural life or family dynamics. You won’t, other than having experienced, as the director’s notes remind us, an authentic modern American classic.

 

Barry Willis is a Senior Writer/Editor for Aisle Seat Review. He is also a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child”

Through February 25, 2018

Main Stage West 104 North Main Street Sebastopol CA 95472 www.mainstagewest.com 707-823-0177

Rating: Three-and-a-half out of five stars.

 

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** 

ASR Theater Review! Supremely Good “Disgraced” at Left Edge Theater — by Barry Willis

A celebratory dinner party goes horribly awry in Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” at Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa, through February 18. In it, ostensibly upscale intelligent people provoke each other just enough to reveal ancient ethnic hatreds lurking just beneath the veneer of civility.

The controversial script won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Tightly directed by Phoebe Moyer, who in her director’s notes mentions having felt “uncomfortable, frightened, and ultimately moved,” when she first read it, the play explores interconnected contemporary issues of, as Moyer puts it, “religion, capitalism, tribalism, race, tradition, infidelity, loyalty, politics, and the role of the artist” with amazing efficiency thanks to Akhtar’s authorial elegance and the cast’s tremendous ensemble work.

Ilana Niernberger stars as Emily, an artist whose work has begun to appropriate Islamic imagery. Her partner Amir (Jared N. Wright) is a hard-working lawyer seeking to make partner in his law firm, but held back by the Indian/Pakistani ethnicity he has long tried to minimize. Amir’s nephew (Adrian Causor) has gone so far in rejecting his Islamic roots that he’s legally changed his name to “Abe Jensen,” explaining to his uncle that by doing so he has almost completely eliminated feeling any sort of discrimination. Mike Shaeffer plays a self-important art curator named Isaac, planning a big exhibit of artists exploring various spiritual traditions. Jory (Jazmine Pierce), his young wife or girlfriend—it’s not clear which—is a lawyer in Amir’s firm, a fact that late in the play drives home the final nail in the coffin of Amir’s professional aspirations.

A bubbling cauldron of complex relationships and thorny issues, “Disgraced” is one of the most dynamic and relevant plays to appear in the North Bay in many months. There is not a moment or gesture wasted in its quick-moving ninety minutes. The acting is as stunning as the script is provocative. The whole affair will leave you gasping for breath at its sheer intellectual and artistic intensity.

“Disgraced” is one of the most compelling scripts to come along in a very long time. The Left Edge production is its perfect realization. Don’t be surprised, if days later, you’re still pondering what it plants in you. That’s the intent of the playwright, director, and cast, and they all succeed beautifully.

 

Barry Willis is a Senior Editor/Writer for Aisle Seat Review, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC).

 

 

Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced”

Through February 18, 2018

Left Edge Theatre, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road Santa Rosa CA 95403

www.leftedgetheatre.com

707-546-3600

Rating: Five out of five stars. 

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Technical Review! “Born Yesterday” at SF Playhouse Mostly Hits Technical Notes — by Team ASR

Note: These commentaries are primarily focused on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

Set in a $235-a-day hotel suite in our nation’s capital after WWII, “Born Yesterday” revolves around one Harry Brock, a self-made scrap-metal tycoon-cum-moneybags who comes to D.C. to buy himself a U.S. Senator. Along the way, he also buys (or so he thinks) a New Republic reporter named Paul Verrall to teach culture and manners to his mistress of eight-plus years, Emma “Billie” Dawn, a mink coat wearing former hoofer from the “Anything Goes” chorus line.

Simple enough. But as they often do in D.C., things go awry.

Because as Billie and Paul (quite quickly and with very little ramp-up) bookworm their way towards a romance, Billie morphs into the best looking, best educated dancer-cum-librarian in these forty-eight states (remember: the play takes place in 1946.)

She also turns a now knowing eye towards the ways Harry has been using/treating her – particularly as a “silent partner”, who, it turns out, owns 160 of what-were-Harry’s-but-are-now-Billie’s junkyards, since Harry insisted that she rather than he sign all the ownership documents (mostly unread.)

To Harry’s horror, Paul’s new student turns into a polished (as opposed to unpolished) dumb blonde, a well-read whistle-blowing crusader-cum-moralist who is in love with said reporter-tutor and not the least bit adverse to some not-so-subtle brink-womanship/blackmail regarding said scrapyards.

Next thing you know, love wins triumphant for Billie and her new beau while Harry has (we’re left to hope) learned his lesson(s) and is licking the wounds of his comeuppance. Curtain calls all around.

Not quite.

There are two flies in the ointment of the SF Playhouse production. As a character, Harry is a bully, a shark who is used to getting his way even if it involves slapping a few people around. That’s a given; no doubt. But, and it’s a BIG but, this play is written as a light comedy and the actor portraying Mr. Brock presents his character as a totally unlikeable, snarling woman (and man) beater. And since he’s such an obvious boob, no self-respecting graft-oriented Senator would get within strongarm (or bank deposit slip) distance of this walking Grand Jury deposition. So, if there is nothing at all likeable about Harry, we’re left with two holes in the plot:

  • If he’s such a relentless bully, hoodlum, and bruiser, why has Billie stayed with him for 8+ years? She may start the play as a “dumb blonde” but she’s obviously way smarter than to sign-up for endless abuse, even at Act 1-Scene
    1.
  • For the play to reach its intended comedy payoff, the audience should/must be laughing at Harry’s final comeuppance at the hands of these “born yesterday” newbies, Billie and Paul. Without his outraged sputtering, day-late-and-dollar-short, speechless hair-tearing, aghast flummoxing and proverbial pie-in-the-face downfall the audience is robbed of the comedy crescendo to which this tight script leads. He’s the real country bumpkin boob in this show.

Absent those two points, we’re left with a morality play.

***

Editor’s Note: One thing that’s interesting about “Born Yesterday” — As of February 2018, if you remove musicals from the equation, ”Born Yesterday”, based on its 1946-1949 run of 1,642 performances, remains inside the Top 10 Longest Running Broadway Plays list. And inside the Top 50 Longest Running Broadway Plays list even with musicals in the mix. Wow!

***

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:
SF Playhouse is known for nice sets. This one is, in a word, fabulous. Multi-layered, including a 2 or 3 story window with rear projection of The Mall in Washington, D.C., this is a set among sets. Major marks to Scenic Designer Jacquelyn Scott. Special nod to Projections Designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker. (Score: 9.5/10)

Set Construction:
Nice. Doors close nicely without shaking the two/three story walls. Two center stage columns impress without swaying as people and or doors move. The impressive stairway is quiet and its rails and balusters are sweet. Wall fit, trim and paint details are very, very well executed. The painted floor is also very nice. In short, very nice work all around and kudos to Maggie Koch (Production Manager), Zach Sigman (Technical Director) and all the SF Playhouse production technicians involved. (Score: 9.5/10)

Stage Management:
High-five to Beth Hall, the Stage Manager: the action behind the scenes was almost flawless. Cues were on their mark, entrances snappy, scenic (and projection) transitions timely. Nice work Beth — and Emily Kovalcik, stage management intern. (Score: 9/10)

Sound:
The show doesn’t have an especially large sound cue list, but all of the ever-present Mr. Hulsker’s sounds were executed and voiced well. (Score: 9/10)

Props:
Speaking of omni-present, Ms. Scott of Scenic Design fame also serves as Properties Manager for this production and did yeowoman’s work on this front as well. The furniture was tasteful, the props as period as possible it appeared. (Score: 9/10)

Costumes:
Mid- 20th century (1946) is always a tricky ask of any costumer. Abra Berman took a mighty swing and darn near got all the costumes right. A couple of outfits looked more ‘50s than mid-‘40s, but still a solid job. (Score: 8/10)

Direction:
Susi Damilano knows directing cold. Let’s get that straight right off. She’s a top-flight director. And, comedy – any comedy, anywhere, anytime, in any theater – is hard to direct. Period.

As seen, this show did not represent Ms. Damilano’s very best. Pacing was a solid beat too slow in Act 1 and missed by more in Act 2. Character arcs were left too flat and we missed-out on the comedic payoff of Mr. Brock’s comeuppance (mentioned above.)

To be fair, 1940’s words-and-phrases require more work on the part of actors and directors. Characters of this period often spoke sotto voce, or out of the side of their mouth. (Think Cary Grant, Abner Bieberman, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy in “His Girl Friday”.) These were well trained radio actors who knew how to nuance each line they delivered.

On a related note, actors in this show too often spoke both too soft and off-axis from the audience, making it difficult to hear the lines and the jokes. Vocal projection, from these sorts of characters and with this sort of material, is to be expected. When an audience works to hear or to decipher a line (or ‘accent’) jokes die.

Ditto when line speed slows down. Comedy, especially of this period, needs to be tight, crisp, and rat-a-tat fast. (Score: 8/10)

Lighting:
By and large, Michael Oesch’s lighting design for this show was good. In particular, the upstairs lighting and that of the entryway was very well conceived and executed. That said, there were noticeable gaps between the lights set for downstage. At this production level, the audience should not see a dim zone between lights. (Score: 8/10)

Casting:
Casting by Lauren English and Bebe La Grua was mostly fine, with two notable exceptions: the actors selected to portray Mr. Brock and and Mr. Verrall. Both were too ‘one note.’ On the other hand, Ms. Millie Brooks is delightful actress. (Score: 8/10)

Overall Production:
What went right: Killer set. Tight stage management. Solid props and sound. Mostly solid costumes and lights.
What missed a bit: Direction. Casting.

So, excepting a couple of infield ground balls, (which, to be fair, can largely be addressed) this show has the potential to be the sort of solid inside-the-park home-run production we’re used to from SF Playhouse. (Score: 8.5/10)

Overall Theater Tech Score: (86.5/100) Good work, worth seeing.

 

Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin

Directed by Susi Damilano
Runs thru March 10, 2018 at SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA
Performance run time is approx. 2 hours 30 minutes w/one 15-minute intermission.
Tickets available online at sfplayhouse.org or by phone at 415.677.9596

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians, dancers, technicians, stage managers, and a host of other arts folks.

We don’t name names for obvious reasons — and Team ASR often buys their own tickets and do not announce their presence as such at a performance — but it is important to note that each Team ASR review is screened by one or more ASR Editors to insure a ‘fair’ review, warts and all, when appropriate.

The goal of Team ASR Reviews is to communicate directly with the technical staffs who are largely ignored by most reviewers. These behind the scenes folks work their collective butt’s off to mount a show, and they deserve well-intentioned constructive criticism from fellow artists as appropriate — and ditto for well-earned praise.

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Theater Review! Uneven but Enjoyable: Gurney’s “Dining Room” at Sonoma Arts Live — by Barry Willis

A.R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room” is an insider’s gentle spoof of upper-middle-class White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs) of the northeastern United States, the dominant culture in this country throughout the 20th century. Morals, assumptions, beliefs, values, and behaviors all get fully and sometimes hilariously examined in the play’s two hours, the entirety of which takes place in the dining room of one stately home, in overlapping scenes that span several generations and decades.

It’s also a challenging exercise for actors required to play characters of wildly divergent ages: older actors portraying children, for example, or younger ones playing the elderly.

This can be a bit of a stretch, as proven in the current production at Sonoma Arts Live, directed by Joey Hoeber. With six actors playing multiple roles, some are convincing and others not so, to the extent that it may be uncomfortable to watch. Veteran actor Kit Grimm is at his finest portraying a couple of curmudgeonly grandfathers, but not believable as a six-year-old at a birthday party. Trevor Hoffman is outstanding playing an almost age-appropriate teenager, while Rhonda Guaraglia is not. She’s much better as Aunt Harriet, showing her college-age son what proper dining etiquette and paraphernalia are all about.

The dining room in question is elegantly and convincingly recreated on a raised stage by set designer Bruce Lackovic, and well used by a parade of faux New Englanders including a pushy realtor, a philandering married couple, a Boston handyman, a Freudian psychiatrist, an architect, and parents and children of all ages. The opening act at SAL is marred by some unevenness but redeemed by a smoothly performed and heartwarming second act.

“The Dining Room” is more than a gentle spoof. It’s also a love song and fond farewell to a way of life slowly but inexorably vanishing. In this, the Sonoma Arts cast succeeds in getting it right.

 

Barry Willis is a Senior Writer/Editor at Aisle Seat Review. He is also a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

A.R. Gurney’s “The Dining Room,” directed by Joey Hoeber
Through February 4, 2018
Sonoma Arts Live
Rotary Stage, Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street
Sonoma CA 95476
Info: sonomaartslive.org Tel: 866-710-8942

Rating: Three out of Five Stars

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Theater Review! Dynamic, Compelling “Skeleton Crew” at Marin Theatre Co. — by Barry Willis

The spirit of August Wilson hovers everywhere in Dominique Morriseau’s gritty “Skeleton Crew” at Marin Theatre Company, in cooperation with TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

In a Detroit stamping plant in the midst of the 2008 recession, four black auto production workers struggle to survive and to do the right thing in desperate economic circumstances. Highly skilled and valued employees, they are nonetheless at risk of being downsized as plant management tries to cut costs. Supervisor Reggie (Lance Gardner, superb) walks a tight stressful line between keeping workers productive and bosses happy. Faye (the irrepressible Margo Hall), senior worker and union representative, seeks justice for her comrades and for herself as the downsizing points toward a potential plant closing. Several months pregnant, Shanita (Tristan Cunningham) hopes to hang on to her job for the medical benefits, while Dez (Christian Thompson) hopes only to keep his long enough so that he can open his own auto shop.

As in many of Wilson’s plays, the four characters strive against external obstacles while being hampered by many of their own making. Faye, for example, has a gambling problem that has made her lose her home, while Dez carries a handgun in and out of the plant in clear violation of company rules, not with intent to commit a crime but simply to protect himself from criminals lurking in the neighborhood. Most complex of all is Reggie’s situation: a confrontational relationship with Dez, a familial relationship with Faye, and his own family, home, and career to consider.

Plus the plant is plagued by ongoing thefts that potentially implicate everyone. It’s a pressure cooker portrayed with great passion and conviction by four Equity actors under the direction of Jade King Carroll. It all plays out in one of the plant’s break rooms, grimly realized by scenic designer Ed Haynes. A brilliant combination of stark video projections by Mike Post from the opposite side of the break room’s windows, and a heavy soundtrack by Karin Greybash, convey heavy industrial activity in the bustling noisy plant.

“Skeleton Crew” charges along like a runaway train toward its sudden but not unexpected conclusion. We need not step into the factory to understand what goes on there, nor do we need to step outside to understand what the workers face when they leave. Many in the audience will arrive with little experience of the brutal circumstances endured by industrial workers, but all will leave with increased sympathy and understanding.

 

Barry Willis is a Senior Contributor/Editor at Aisle Seat Review. He is also a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

“Skeleton Crew” by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Jade King Carroll.
Through February 18, 2018
Marin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA 94941-2885
info: www.marintheatre.org

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****  

 

ASR Theater Review! ‘Cops and Robbers’ is Must See Theater — by Kris Neely

Cops and Robbers is an important piece of theater. As presented at The Marsh in Berkeley, CA, it is also raw, honest, and powerful, demanding more than just passive viewing. This is theater that challenges the audience, regardless of ethnicity, to honestly assess their perceptions—and assumptions—on race in America.

In Cops and Robbers, Mr. Jinho Ferreira plays 17 wildly different roles including a self-centered news reporter, a black activist, an amazingly comic white conservative talk show host, a judge, and a hyped-up police department sergeant. The plot of this 90-minute, one-man theater piece turns on the now all-too-familiar topic of an officer-involved shooting, with the host of characters morphing in and out of the show to tell the story from each person’s perspective.

To be fair, the production needs some minor editing/tightening, more consistent lighting, better microphone management, and a re-designed opening video montage that better engages the audience.

Yet, it is a damned important piece of theater, well rendered by an actor/playwright focused on asking essential questions through his writing, storytelling, and acting.

This reviewer left The Marsh not just liking, not merely appreciating, but actively respecting Mr. Ferreira and his work as a playwright and as an actor.

Each character in Cops and Robbers is the personification of an ethical viewpoint the playwright encountered growing up in West Oakland, CA. Mr. Ferreira’s insightful writing and bravura performance, goes where few American theater productions go by asking the audience a single, powerful, pervasive question: what will you do with your new knowledge, awareness, and insider view of topics many of us prefer to hear about in sanitized sound bites—if we want to hear about them at all.

This play takes on difficult topics—black-on-black crime, police officers’ use of force, American politics, the power of social media—and shows the audience how the people in these societal factions often do not speak the same language, value the same things, or make much of an effort to understand one another.  Mr. Ferreira is trying to drill down to the essence—not the stereotypes or popular perceptions—of those who live on these cultural islands, which are informed by ideology, pride, power (real and imagined), tradition, money, influence, and pain.

Typically, a play review discusses what the production is about. I believe in this case it is equally important to discuss what this play and performance is not.

It is not:

  • a politically-driven rant
  • a Black Power endorsement wrapped in the lights, costumes, and imagery of the stage.
  • an indictment of the power structure (whatever you deem that to be)
  • anti-white or anti-black
  • pro-black or pro-white
  • a classically-trained actor exploiting the onslaught of shooting and police-in-the-news stories
  • dumbed-down

Mr. Ferreira endeavors to go beyond right/wrong, white/black, yes/no and stereotypes to lead the audience beyond themselves to a new level of understanding; to see reality as it is and not as we think it is, or would like it to be.

This reviewer places lots of value on craft. As an actor, I applaud his work. As a writer, I’m amazed at the subtlety of his script. As a director, it would be an honor to work with a talent as powerful and singular as Jinho Ferreira. As an audience member who has experienced Mr. Ferreira’s craft and heard the messages of his play, my take-away—my responsibility—is to spread the word of this singular achievement.

If you like theater that supplies pat answers, this is not your show. If you like theater that asks you to think, that asks you to examine your perceptions, that urges and inspires you to act and be part of the solution then this is your show.

Cops and Robbers is that rarest of experiences: essential and important theater.

 

Cops and Robbers:

Directed by Ami Zins and Lew Levinson.

Written by Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira. A graduate of San Francisco State University, Ferreira, who describes himself as a self-taught actor and playwright, is also a musician, singer, father of three, and Alameda County Sherriff’s Deputy.

Mature content: appropriate for ages 15+.

Runs SATURDAY AFTERNOONS ONLY at 5:00 p.m. through October 3, 2015; dark on 9/19/15 at The Marsh Theater, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA.

Tickets available online at www.themarsh.org or by phone at 415.282.3055 1:00-4:00 p.m. Mon-Fri

Run time: 90 minutes with one intermission.

Rating: Four-and-a-Half out of Five Stars

 

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Technical Review! ‘Cops and Robbers’ is Solid Theater — by Team ASR

Note: These commentaries are primarily focused on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

Cops and Robbers is an important piece of theater. As presented at The Marsh in Berkeley, CA, it is also raw, honest, and powerful, demanding more than just passive viewing. This is theater that challenges the audience, regardless of ethnicity, to honestly assess their perceptions—and assumptions—on race in America.

In Cops and Robbers, Mr. Jinho Ferreira plays 17 wildly different roles including a self-centered news reporter, a black activist, an amazingly comic white conservative talk show host, a judge, and a hyped-up police department sergeant. The plot of this 90-minute, one-man theater piece turns on the now all-too-familiar topic of an officer-involved shooting, with the host of characters morphing in and out of the show to tell the story from each person’s perspective, a modern twist on Kurasawa’s classic Rashomon.

This reviewer left The Marsh not just liking, not merely appreciating, but actively respecting Mr. Ferreira and his work as a playwright and as an actor.

Each character in Cops and Robbers is the personification of an ethical viewpoint the playwright encountered growing up in West Oakland, CA. Mr. Ferreira’s insightful writing and bravura performance, goes where few American theater productions go by asking the audience a single, powerful, pervasive question: what will you do with your new knowledge, awareness, and insider view of topics many of us prefer to hear about in sanitized sound bites—if we want to hear about them at all.

This play takes on difficult topics—black-on-black crime, police officers’ use of force, American politics, the power of social media—and shows the audience how the people in these societal factions often do not speak the same language, value the same things, or make much of an effort to understand one another.  Mr. Ferreira is trying to drill down to the essence—not the stereotypes or popular perceptions—of those who live on these cultural islands, which are informed by ideology, pride, power (real and imagined), tradition, money, influence, and pain.

If you like theater that supplies pat answers, this is not your show. If you like theater that asks you to think, that asks you to examine your perceptions, that urges and inspires you to act and be part of the solution then this is your show.

Cops and Robbers is that rarest of experiences: essential and important theater.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

The set for this show is a black stage and black curtain backdrop, and the lone prop a hard-backed chair positioned center stage right. The program begins with an opening montage of video clips.

The content of this script and the acting combined with effective sound effects, conveyed what a more over-thought set design would have obscured. That said, I’m giving this design a 7 out of 10 because it didn’t try to do more. (Score: 7/10)

Set Construction:

(Score: N/A)

Stage Management:

To the Stage Manager’s credit, the action behind the scenes was mostly smooth. A bit less time in blackout would have been better. Sound cues were on their mark. (Score: 8/10)

Sound:

Watch out for Mr. Ferreira’s microphone; it was over-driven, causing distortion at a couple points. Sound effects were very well chosen—unobtrusive and well delivered—supporting the action. (Score: 7.5/10)

Props:

In a one-person show with a blank stage, a wooden chair, sound effects, and one actor, the props department gets a well-deserved bye.  (Score: N/A.)

Costumes:

Mr. Ferreira’s costume was a basic black T-shirt and black, military-style cargo pants with black police boots. The simplicity of the costume worked well as the principal actor morphed from character to character. Again, not over-thinking these choices aided and supported the production. (Score: 7/10)

Direction:

Tightly directed for the most part. Pacing was good, a demanding task in a one-person show which makes the kinds of physical demands on an actor that this play does. A couple character transitions showed flashes of questionable acting choices. (Score: 7/10)

Lights:

The lights were uneven. On more than one occasion Mr. Ferreira was performing between lights in a dim zone. There was no indication that this was required by the script. This is not good anytime but especially for a one person show. (Score: 4/10)

Casting:

N/A as the playwright is the principal actor. (Score: N/A.)

Overall Production

A little more attention to sound management and light placement would add value. The video montage at the top of the program could be cut tighter to build towards the play opening rather than feeling a bit like a bolted-on attraction. A tiny bit of polish on the direction/acting choices in a couple character changes would add even more luster.   (Score: 8/10)

Reviewer Score:

This is an important piece of theater that is effectively rendered. People talk about how this-or-that theater production made them think. This program does that very, very well. Go see this show, and bring every friend and neighbor you can find. (Score: 8.5/10)

Overall Theater Tech Score: (57/80) Good work.

Cops and Robbers

Directed by Ami Zins and Lew Levinson.

Written by Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira. A graduate of San Francisco State University, Ferreira, who describes himself as a self-taught actor and playwright, is also a musician, singer, father of three, and Alameda County Sherriff’s Deputy.

Mature content: appropriate for ages 15+.

Runs SATURDAY AFTERNOONS ONLY at 5:00 p.m. through October 3, 2015; dark on 9/19/15. at The Marsh Theater, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA.

Tickets available online at http://www.themarsh.org or by phone at 415.282.3055 1:00-4:00 p.m. Mon-Fri

Run time: 90 minutes with one intermission.

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians,

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians, dancers, technicians, stage managers, and a host of other arts folks.

We don’t name names for obvious reasons — and Team ASR often buys their own tickets and do not announce their presence as such at a performance — but it is important to note that each Team ASR review is screened by one or more ASR Editors to insure a ‘fair’ review, warts and all, when appropriate.

The goal of Team ASR Reviews is to communicate directly with the technical staffs who are largely ignored by most reviewers. These behind the scenes folks work their collective butt’s off to mount a show, and they deserve well-intentioned constructive criticism from fellow artists as appropriate — and ditto for well-earned praise.

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Theater Review! Ubuntu Theater Has Smash with ‘Waiting for Lefty’ — by Kris Neely

Clifford Odets was one of the most skilled playwrights of 1930s American social protest. For those who can leave their political leanings at the coat check when entering the theater, his writing is spare, almost terse, and highly instructive of the period. His characters are powerful and symbolic without stooping to sentimentality or cliché. And his staging devices are imaginative yet simple without being simplistic. His works have a timelessness so they can be staged in many settings and styles without losing their impact. Mr. Odets’ plays are dramatic representations of blue collar life in the 1930 that are socially, historically, and dramatically authentic and important.

Born in Philadelphia in 1906, Odets grew-up in the Bronx, New York, the very definition of working-class America. Attracted to the theater, Mr. Odets joined the Group Theatre in 1931 where he wrote his six best and most famous plays: Golden BoyRocket to the MoonParadise LostAwake and Sing!Till the Day I Die, and the first play of Odets to be produced, Waiting for Lefty, arguably one of the most celebrated and significant plays of twentieth century American theatre. Mr. Odets’ dramatizations of the common workingman’s struggle in his time paved the way for the works of Arthur Miller, William Inge, and Tennessee Williams.

If you like your theater understated and enjoy teasing the significance, meaning, or connotation out of this-or-that character’s lines, then Odets is not your playwright, and Waiting for Lefty is not your play. This is politically left, workingman theater delivered with the sweet subtlety of brass knuckles driven by a large muscular man descending from his well-worn, roughly hewn soapbox.

The essence of Waiting for Lefty is that unions and collective bargaining are the only ways for the American workingman to gain any kind of footing against big business. Absent those tools, owners and their cronies can—and will—continually drive down wages and suppress the means necessary for these same workers to do a decent day’s work.  As a result, the working classes need to fight like junkyard dogs for their rights, particularly to unionize.

* * *

This production of Waiting for Lefty by the Ubuntu Theater Project (UTP), converts an actual Berkeley, CA, automobile body-and-fender repair shop into a theatre space. Directors Emile Whelan and Michael S. Moran stayed true to Odets stage direction by having actors mixed-in among the audience, seated on crates around the make-shift stage—an open circle of stained concrete floor. The staging— grounded in the rigid industrial sights, unexpected smells, and hard-edged sonic envelope of the environment—raised the sensory impact of this production a notch or two.

The lighting design by Stephanie Anne Johnson was as unflinching as the grey concrete stage: hard, almost industrial lighting illuminated the actors clearly while adding stark shadows and sharply-defined profiles, which were not lost on the acting talent.

Costuming, by Luther Spratt, was pretty close to period for the most part. Costuming also represents the aspect of the production with which this reviewer was least satisfied. Working men’s clothes should look like working men’s clothes: wrinkled, sweat stained, maybe soiled. Also, when the cast is singing about not having visibility to their next hot meal, their clothes should map to that message. This material requires that the audience be able to see, simply by looking at the costumes, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. That message was muddled in this production.

The casting was uniformly good. The production felt the slightest bit under-rehearsed and some of the acting choices could have been better considered. Hopefully these rough edges will smooth out as the run progresses. Also, the actors felt a little unsure about using pauses to let the text/plot breathe a little. The result, while accompanied by solid skill to be sure, was a tad too rushed and lacked the tentativeness and hesitancy with which people approach real conversation, especially when tough, unsparing topics are on the table.

Stage management was tight with snappy entrances, cues, and exits. The acoustics of the garage setting paid a premium to those actors who enunciated well.

Props were appropriate to the message and the set design, as it were, was spare, solid, and simple: a single wooden chair, a large wooden cable spool, and a wrench for a gavel. The effect, like the play itself, was industrial and hard-edged.

* * *

Overall, I liked UTP’s version of Waiting for Lefty, and recommended it as an SFBATCC “Go See” production.  Looking at the production as a whole—the text of the play, the messages within it, the energy and craft of the acting team, and the care taken by the creative team—Waiting for Lefty is a solid production of an important period piece of American history.

Go see it!

 

Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets, directed by Emile Whelan and Michael S. Moran runs through September 12, 2015 at Classic Cars West, 411 26th St. Oakland CA 94612.

Tickets are available online at http://www.ubuntutheaterproject.com

Run time: 45 minutes with no intermission.

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

***

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

 

 

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Technical Review! Ubuntu Theater Project Totally Nails ‘Waiting for Lefty’ — by Team ASR

Note: These commentaries are primarily focused on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

Clifford Odets was arguably one of the most skilled playwrights of 1930s American social protest. His writing is spare, almost terse, and highly instructive of the period. His characters are powerful and symbolic without stooping to sentimentality or cliché. And his staging devices are imaginative yet simple without being simplistic. His works have a timelessness so they can be staged in many settings and styles without losing their impact. This production of Waiting for Lefty by the Ubuntu Theater Project (UTP), converts an actual Berkeley, CA, automobile body-and-fender repair shop into a theatre space where directors Emile Whelan and Michael S. Moran present the drama as a series of seven vignettes, separated by blackouts.

If you like your theater understated and enjoy teasing the significance, meaning, or connotation out of this-or-that character’s lines, then Odets is not your playwright, and Waiting for Lefty is not your play. This is politically left, workingman theater delivered with the sweet subtlety of brass knuckles driven by a large muscular man descending from his well-worn, roughly hewn soapbox.

The essence of Waiting for Lefty is that unions and collective bargaining are the only ways for the American workingman to gain any kind of footing against big business. Absent those tools, owners and their cronies can—and will—continually drive down wages and suppress the means necessary for these same workers to do a decent day’s work.  As a result, the working classes need to fight like junkyard dogs for their rights, particularly to unionize.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

The choice of the automobile repair shop as a theater was an inspired choice. The hard, stained gray concrete floors; the roughhewn lumber ceiling and supports; parked cars from a variety of decades; garage acoustics; and the smells of rubber, oil, and grease made for a potent backdrop to this production. The setting made the audience feel as if they’d been invited to observe a secret meeting of workingmen to discuss unionization. The set design within the garage was also spare, solid, and simple: a single wooden chair, a large wooden cable spool, and wooden crates.   (Score: 9/10)

Set Construction:

The playing area was a rough circle of concrete surrounded by wooden benches and crates for audience seating. In essence the play was presented in the round, with entrances and exits through aisles between the audiences’ seating. No score for this category. (Score: N/A)

Stage Management:

Tight, timely, and effective.  JJ Hersh’s efforts were well executed. (Score: 8/10)

Sound:          

Acoustics were interesting given that cavernous space, and the number of cars parked just outside the playing area. No score for this category. (Score: N/A)

Props:

Props were appropriate to the message and the set design: spare and simple—a wrench for a gavel; a straight-back, wooden chair; an empty, rough-hewn cable spool acting as a desk; a table; and a podium. The effect, like the play itself, was industrial and hard-edged.

The actors mimed using a camera to take some pictures. We know cameras of that period not by their click but by their flash; even something a subtle as that can cause the audience to lose engagement.

On another note, when an actor hands another actor money, especially when audience members are three or four feet away from the action, real money should be used and the denomination should represent the action. So if an actor is handing someone sixty-five cents, they should hand the actor sixty-five cents and not just a random selection of coins. The same hold true for folding money. While the folding money may not necessarily be period to the production, it detracts from the truth of the show for both audience and actors when obviously fake money is used in a production. Worst of all are those productions that skip the money prop all together and just have the actor mime they are handing another actor money. These are the details that elevate a production above the pedestrian level and crown superior productions.   (Score: 7/10).

Costumes:

While the costuming, by Luther Spratt, was close to period for the most part, it was the aspect of the production that was least satisfactory.

  • Workingmen’s clothes should look like workingmen’s clothes: wrinkled, sweat stained, maybe soiled.
  • One of the male actors was wearing a contemporary watch.
  • Shoes on workingmen should not be shined but should show their labor heritage.
  • In the SF Bay Area, gaining access to either Goodwill coats for purchase—or even for loan—or access to the costume departments of other theater companies should preclude coats whose sleeves are too short, as occurred on one actor in this production.
  • The dress of a working-class housewife whose furniture has just been repossessed should look the part. This actresses’ dress was too upmarket, too fancy. Images like this cause the audience to disengage to one degree or another while they think: That dress isn’t right. Again, with reference to accessibility of costume resources in the Bay Area, no production should trade those audience reality points if at all possible.
  • No executive of this period would be caught dead without a tie.

Also, when the cast is singing about not having visibility to their next hot meal, their clothes should map to that message. This material requires that the audience be able to see, simply by looking at the costumes, which are the good guys and which are the bad guys. That message was muddled in this production. (Score: 5.5/10)

Direction:

UTP’s Waiting for Lefty is on the whole competently directed by Emile Whelan and Michael S. Moran.

That said, the acting has a bit of a rushed call-and-response feel—they aren’t talking to each other, just trading lines. The connection between the characters needs work. Also, overall delivery from almost all actors felt to linear and unmodulated.

In addition, the overall timing/pacing of the show felt a bit rushed, which was especially unnecessary given the play’s 45-minute run time. The characters in this play are thinking deep thoughts about complex and potentially dangerous, even life threatening, topics, and their dialog should have the hesitations and pauses such situations command. Even if the playwright didn’t indicate pauses, the material and situation(s) of this play command them.

On another note, when someone writes a brief message to someone, an actor should be directed to make the appropriate amount of effort to actually write the message. (Score: 6.5/10)

Lights:

Stephanie Anne Johnson’s lighting design was simple yet effective: hard, industrial lighting that illuminated the actors clearly if unflinchingly and added stark shadows and sharply-defined profiles, which were not lost on the acting talent. (Score: 7/10)

Casting:

The casting was uniformly good. (Score: 8/10)

Overall Production:

Overall, I liked UTP’s version of Waiting for Lefty, and recommended it as an SFBATCC Go See production. True, as noted here, there are some areas that need fine-tuning. But this is quality material from a playwright who knows his craft, delivered with a level of commitment to quality not always apparent.

Reviewer Score:

Looking at the production as a whole—the text of the play, the messages within it, the energy and craft of the acting team, and the care taken by the creative team—tells the tale: Waiting for Lefty by the Ubuntu Theater Project is a solid production of an important period piece of American history.

Go see it! (Score: 8/10)

Overall Theater Tech Score: (66/90) Good work.

Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets

Directed by Emile Whelan and Michael S. Moran at Ubuntu Theater Project.  Runs through September 12, 2015 at Classic Cars West, 411 26th St. Oakland CA 94612.

Tickets available online at http://www.ubuntutheaterproject.com

Run time: 45 minutes with no intermission.

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians,

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians, dancers, technicians, stage managers, and a host of other arts folks.

We don’t name names for obvious reasons — and Team ASR often buys their own tickets and do not announce their presence as such at a performance — but it is important to note that each Team ASR review is screened by one or more ASR Editors to insure a ‘fair’ review, warts and all, when appropriate.

The goal of Team ASR Reviews is to communicate directly with the technical staffs who are largely ignored by most reviewers. These behind the scenes folks work their collective butt’s off to mount a show, and they deserve well-intentioned constructive criticism from fellow artists as appropriate — and ditto for well-earned praise.

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** 

 

ASR Technical Review! Theater Rhino Breaks the Tech Code in Turing Play! — by Team ASR

NOTE: The following commentary is focused primarily on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

These days you can’t swing a secret decoding book without hitting a play, biopic, or documentary about Alan Turing. There is no question that Mr. Turing (1912-1954) was a mathematical prodigy whose genius left a legacy that remains scientifically relevant to this day. But it is the circumstances of his too-short life that continues to intrigue, inform, and inspire.

The hit revival of Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 Breaking the Code by Theater Rhinoceros at the Eureka Theater masterfully captures Turing’s professional assent, first for his contributions in developing computer science as we know it then later for his pivotal part in breaking the Nazi’s Enigma code that helped the Allies win World War II to his subsequent tragic fall from public grace for being homosexual. Whether by nature or necessity, Turing was a complex man who tried—and ultimately failed—to compartmentalize his life, leading to his apparent suicide in 1954. Directed by and starring Theater Rhinoceros Artistic Director John Fisher, this show is must-see drama.

This production is not “gay theater” nor is it a fringe work designed to incite people with too much anger for the world to scream Oppression! on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, typed furiously on their Taco Bell-stained laptop keyboard. This production ofBreaking the Code is quality theater of the first rank that could be picked-up and dropped unchanged into a venue like the SF Playhouse, Marin Theater Company or Aurora Theater.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

Too many community and regional theaters try misdirect the audience from lackluster acting and direction by self-conscious sets or visual effects. The set by Jon Wai-keung Lowe is ingeniously simple and forms a perfect backdrop for the events of Mr. Turing’s life, emphasizing the theory that it’s the acting that makes the play. (Score: 8/10)

Set Construction:

Dave Gardner’s set construction was well done and inserting doors into the blackboards stage left and right was a clever addition.  (Score: 7/10)

Stage Management:

Congratulations to stage manager Valerie Tu (soon to be interning at Chicago’s fabled Steppenwolf Theater) and her assistant Cat Howser for spot-on actor, lighting, and sound cues. Of note was having the actors re-position the furniture and props in semi-darkness between scenes. Mr. Fisher in particular seemed to be channeling Fred Astaire as he deftly and precisely accomplished his tasks during the scene changes.  (Score: 8/10)

Sound:

Colin Johnson’s sound effects were largely good although it was confusing when the office/typewriter effects weren’t always audible when the door into Mr. Turing’s room was opened. (Score: 7/10)

Props:

John Fisher’s props are spare but period proper and well rendered, an ornament to the acting, not mere set—or actor—decoration. (Score: 7.5/10)

Costumes:

Lara Rempel’s costume choices were first-rate, period proper, and well rendered. Period hose on the ladies was a nice detail, as was the damp T-shirt on Mr. Turing as he finished jogging.  (Score: 8/10)

Direction:

Clearly a well-rehearsed production, the direction was solid, professional, and well executed with twice the much-deserved applause because the director is also the lead actor. It is much more difficult to direct yourself than others but John Fisher did it seamlessly. Pacing was nice—brisk but not breathless. The show also used pauses well—a rare dramatic art these days.) (Score: 8.5/10)

Lights:

Jon Wai-keung Lowe and Sean Keehan’s lighting design was subtle and largely unobtrusive but with one hitch: on more than one occasion actors were performing between lights in a dim zone. (Score: 7.5/10)

Casting:

The gentlemen in the cast were solid and Mr. Fisher was simply outstanding. New or seasoned acting students should buy tickets to study a professional at work.

Frank Wang played hustler Ron Miller obliquely as a man made of angles and edges, each sharper than the last.  Val Henrickson, as Turing co-worker Dillwyn Knox, provided a witty performance as the neighborhood and cultural oracle of bad things to come.

Particularly enjoyable was Patrick Ross as empathetic detective Mike Ross, who seems genuinely hurt that Mr. Turing has blurted out a story revealing his own homosexuality, leaving the lawman no choice but to investigate Mr. Turing and charge him with gross indecency. The scene is hard to watch and the audience was silent save for the collective sign of 60 souls seeing a man put himself squarely in the crosshairs of the law.

Heren Patel assumes two roles in the show: an awkward school boy and a Grecian guy-for-rent whose stream of Greek-speech is both impressive and quite funny.

One acting note: when an actor is supposed to write something—in this case it was an address–on a piece of paper, the actor should quickly write the address down, not just apply pen to paper and scribble. Details always count, but especially so in a quality production like this.  (Score: 8/10)

Overall Production:

As produced by Theatre Rhinoceros  and expertly directed by John Fisher, Breaking theCode is thoughtful, taut, often funny, touching, heartfelt, and skillfully rendered. The drama is crisply written.  (8.5/10)

Reviewer Score:

From lights-up to lights-down, this fast-paced production is how quality theater is done. This is not a hard code to break: run, don’t walk, to see this show—and bring your friends.  (Score: 8.5/10)

Overall Score: 86.5/110. Very good work.

Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore, directed by John Fisher.

Theatre Rhinoceros, Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco, CA 94111

Tickets at: http://www.therhino.org/buy.htm or 1-800- 838-3006

Run time: 2:10 with one intermission.

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians, dancers, technicians, stage managers, and a host of other arts folks.

We don’t name names for obvious reasons — and Team ASR often buys their own tickets and do not announce their presence as such at a performance — but it is important to note that each Team ASR review is screened by one or more ASR Editors to insure a ‘fair’ review, warts and all, when appropriate.

The goal of Team ASR Reviews is to communicate directly with the technical staffs who are largely ignored by most reviewers. These behind the scenes folks work their collective butt’s off to mount a show, and they deserve well-intentioned constructive criticism from fellow artists as appropriate — and ditto for well-earned praise.

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Theater Review! ‘Company’ Storms SF Playhouse and That’s Good News! — by Kris Neely

SF Playhouse has learned a secret uncovered by few community and regional theaters: big musicals in the June 1 to Sept. 1 time-frame can make serious money. Especially in tourist destination cities or areas.

Raising a vodka gimlet to toast their own obvious success with this secret (as witnessed by the near sell-out audience last Saturday night), SF Playhouse’s production of Company, by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, went down as smooth as a cocktail and left many patrons with a satisfied glow as a result.

Company is not your typical all-singing-all-dancing musical. In fact, there’s little enough dancing in the show—this is a musical with the emphasis on the music and the singing.Company is not a sort of A-to-Z straight-line plot, either. The show is composed of a variety of scenes that taken as a whole tell our tale.

The scenes/music/singing all revolve around the dating / marriage / commitment / relationships of one newly 35-year-old man named Bobby, played with almost detached studied aplomb by Keith Pinto. A perpetual bachelor and bon vivant, Bobby, and his married friends, are celebrating his birthday; that, in essence, is the story line.

As directed by SF Playhouse co-founder Susi Damilano, Company eschews the full orchestration and electric guitars of most productions, relying instead on two pianos, located stage left and stage right. Music Director Dave Dobrusky presides over one of these pianos and surely conducts his charges. The effect of this two-piano strategy is more personal, less grandiose than a full or even partial orchestra.

The set design by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott is elegant on many levels because the set is built on, you guessed it, many levels. The scenic rear projections as designed by Micah Stieglitz add a powerful theatrical touch to the proceedings. The sound design by Anton Hedman works well, as does the lighting design by Michael Oesch.

Stage management by Tatjana Genser is tight with sound and light cues snappily in place. Costume design by Shannon Sigman takes full marks—elegant, well designed, and nicely rendered. All the actors looked darn good in Sigman’s work. The props design is fine—what props need to be in place are in place, work well, and underscore scenes nicely.

Choreography by Kimberly Richards, ably assisted by Morgan Dayley, is sharp and professional, given the limitations on dancing room due to the multi-plane set.

Let’s move on to the acting. Overall, the casting and associated acting of this show is a little bit uneven, but, to be sure, the acting is in general rendered with obvious verve and commitment.

I do wish we’d gotten to see a bit more of Abby Sammons’ (Jenny) good work. This is a talented lady.

Then there is Monique Hafen as Amy.

Can I say, “Oh. My. God.” in a review? There’s nothing else to say. To say Hafen nails the anxiety, the intensity, the comedy, and the speed-singing of Amy, who may not be getting married today, is like saying the Mona Lisa is “a pretty, sort of, mostly OK drawing.” Once Hafen starts acting and singing, almost all the other cast members turn to specters at worst or supporting actors/singers at best. Hafen is the most exciting and engaging musical performer in this cast, bar none. If she doesn’t have a suitcase permanently packed for Broadway by her home’s front door she’s doing something wrong.

Another notable performance is rendered by Joanne (Stephanie Prentice). Never far from a bar or a drink, the fragile, emotional wreck that is Joanne has one of the most powerful songs of the night (“The Ladies Who Lunch”) and Prentice nailed it cold.

Full marks must be given to Morgan Dayley in her character as a flight attendant who spends as much time looking up at bedroom ceilings as she does looking down airplane aisles. Dayley gives the role her all and does so without stepping into cliché or camp. Watch this performer, she is going places.

“Side by Side by Side/What Would We Do Without You?” is, I will admit, one of my favorite dance numbers and SF Playhouse did it with gusto. Overall, the music and singing were quite good.

All in all, SF Playhouse’s Company is a fine night on the town.

Company continues through Sept. 12 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco.

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

***

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Theater Review! Theater Rhinoceros Powers Turing Bio — by Kris Neely

These days you can’t swing a secret decoding book without hitting a play, biopic, or documentary about Alan Turing. There is no question that Mr. Turing (1912-1954) was a mathematical prodigy whose genius left a legacy that remains scientifically relevant to this day. But it is the circumstances of his too-short life that continues to intrigue, inform, and inspire.

The hit revival of Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 Breaking the Code by Theater Rhinoceros at the Eureka Theater masterfully captures Turing’s professional assent, first for his contributions in developing computer science as we know it then later for his pivotal part in breaking the Nazi’s Enigma code that helped the Allies win World War II to his subsequent tragic fall from public grace for being gay.

Whether by nature or necessity, Turing was a complex man who tried—and ultimately failed—to compartmentalize his life, leading to his apparent suicide in 1954. In a series of well-executed scenes, the play guides us through Mr. Turing’s life from stumbling adolescent to resigned victim of repressive laws as an adult. Directed by and starring Theater Rhinoceros Artistic Director John Fisher, this show is must-see drama.

This production is not “gay theater” nor is it a fringe work designed to incite people with too much anger for the world to scream Oppression! on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, typed furiously on their Taco Bell-stained laptop keyboard. This production of Breaking the Code is quality theater of the first rank that could be picked-up and dropped unchanged into a venue like the SF Playhouse, Marin Theater Company or Aurora Theater.

Clearly a well-rehearsed production, the direction was solid, professional, and well executed with twice the much-deserved applause because the director is also the lead actor. It is much more difficult to direct yourself than others but John Fisher did it seamlessly. Pacing was nice—brisk but not breathless. The show also used pauses well—a rare dramatic art these days.

The set by Jon Wai-keung Lowe is ingeniously simple and forms a perfect backdrop for the events of Mr. Turing’s life. Inserting doors into the blackboards stage left and right was a clever staging choice.

John Fisher’s props are spare but period proper and well rendered.

Lara Rempel’s costume choices were first-rate, period proper, and well rendered. Period hose on the ladies was a nice detail.

Jon Wai-keung Lowe and Sean Keehan’s lighting design was subtle and largely unobtrusive.

Colin Johnson’s sound effects were generally good.

From an acting perspective, Mr. Fisher was simply outstanding. New or seasoned students acting students should buy tickets to study a true professional at work. Frank Wang played hustler Ron Miller obliquely as a man made of angles and edges, each sharper than the last.  Val Henrickson, as Turing co-worker Dillwyn Knox, provided a witty performance as the professional oracle of bad things to come. Particularly enjoyable was Patrick Ross as empathetic detective Mike Ross, who seems genuinely hurt that Mr. Turing has blurted out a story revealing his own homosexuality, leaving the lawman no choice but to investigate Mr. Turing and charge him with gross indecency. The scene is hard to watch and the audience was silent save for the collective sign of 60 souls seeing a man put himself squarely in the crosshairs of the law. Heren Patel assumes two roles in the show: an awkward school boy and a Grecian guy-for-rent whose stream of Greek-speech is both impressive and quite funny.

As produced by Theatre Rhinoceros  and expertly directed by John Fisher, Breaking theCode is thoughtful, taut, often funny, touching, heartfelt, and skillfully rendered. From lights-up to lights-down, this fast-paced production is how quality theater is done. This is not a hard code to break: run, don’t walk, to see this show—and bring your friends.

Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore, directed by John Fisher.

Run time: 2:10 with one intermission.

Theatre Rhinoceros, Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco, CA 94111.

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

ALSO AVAILABLE…

Script available here. 

Audio Theater Edition available here.

Masterpiece Theater version available here.

Book available here.

Tickets available here at: http://www.therhino.org/buy.htm

***

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Technical Review! ‘Company’ Rocks at SF Playhouse — by Team ASR

NOTE: The following commentary is focused primarily on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

SF Playhouse has learned a secret uncovered by few community and regional theaters: big musicals in the June 1 to Sept. 1 timeframe can make serious money. Especially in tourist destination cities or areas.

Raising a vodka gimlet to toast their own obvious success with this secret (as witnessed by the near sell-out audience last Saturday night), SF Playhouse’s production of Company, by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, went down as smooth as a cocktail and left many patrons with a satisfied glow as a result.

Company is not your typical all-singing-all-dancing musical. In fact, there’s little enough dancing in the show—this is a musical with the emphasis on the music and the singing.Company is not a sort of A-to-Z straight-line plot, either. The show is composed of a variety of scenes that taken as a whole tell our tale.

The scenes/music/singing all revolve around the dating/marriage/commitment/relationships of one newly 35-year-old man named Bobby, played with almost detached studied aplomb by Keith Pinto. A perpetual bachelor and bon vivant, Bobby, and his married friends, are celebrating his birthday; that, in essence, is the storyline.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

The set design by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott is elegant on many levels because the set is built on, you guessed it, many levels. The scenic rear projections as designed by Micah Stieglitz add a powerful theatrical touch to the proceedings. (Score: 8/10)

Set Construction:

In a word: quality. A well constructed, well thought-out set. No extraneous architecture—nothing that didn’t need to be there was there. (Score: 8/10)

Stage Management:

As rendered by Tatjana Genser, the stage management was tight with sound and light cues snappily in place.  (Score: 8/10)

Sound:

The sound design by Anton Hedman works well. (Score: 7/10)

Props:

The props design is fine—what props need to be in place are in place, work well, and underscore scenes nicely. (Score: 7/10)

Costumes:

Costume design by Shannon Sigman takes full marks—elegant, well designed, and nicely rendered. All the actors looked darn good in Sigman’s work. (Score: 8/10)

Direction:

As directed by SF Playhouse co-founder Susi Damilano, Company is well blocked with excellent stage pictures rendered on the multiple layers of the stage. This adds complexity to the directorial process because it’s easier to watch/direct actors at the same time on a single level plane versus actors scattered liberally from stage left to stage right and upstage to downstage.

Blocking takes on aspects of choreography in many plays (both musical and non-musical), and Damilano handled movement well. My only nudge would be that cue pick-ups could be quicker, brisker, and the same nudge for scene transitions—a bit faster might have added even more audience energy to the proceedings. (Score: 8/10)

Musical Direction:

Company eschews the full orchestration and electric guitars of most productions, relying instead on two pianos, located stage left and stage right. Music Director Dave Dobrusky hosts one of these pianos and surely conducts his musical charges. The effect of this two-piano strategy is more personal, less grandiose than a full or even partial orchestra. That said, at times it felt a bit like the cast was fighting the sound envelope of the pianos. (Score: 6/10)

Lights:

The lighting design by Michael Oesch in and of itself works well. (Score: 8/10)

NOTE: But I have significant reservation about a couple of architectural lighting issues. The house right and house left tormentor lights spill too much light into the audience area. The same is true of the lights high, upstage center. The light spillage was very distracting and detracted from the quality of what was happening onstage.

Casting:

The casting was a bit uneven. Disappointing, as the majority of the cast ranged from good to superb.  (Score: 7/10)

Overall Production:

As presented by SF Playhouse, Company gives general audiences and those of us inside theater a solid example of taking a musical from some years back and making it modern, energetic, and appealing to a contemporary audience.

The acting of Monique Hafen made this show for me. Her stellar history with SF Playhouse is now the stuff of regional theater legend. Soon, I have little doubt, it will be the stuff of Broadway legend as well. (Score: 8.5/10)

Reviewer Score:

SF Playhouse has demonstrated to everyone that they know how to rock musical theater. From awards won to sell-out nights, SF Playhouse knows musicals. Company continues that proud heritage.

The quality of SF Playhouse musical productions should be a beacon to technical theater artists as well as actors across the US, and, indeed, globally. (Score: 8.5/10)

Overall Score: (92/120) Extremely good work.

 All in all, SF Playhouse’s Company is a fine night on the town.

 

Company continues through Sept. 12 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco.

Tickets are $20-$120 (discounts available). Call 415-677-9596 or visit http://www.sfplayhouse.org.

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians, dancers, technicians, stage managers, and a host of other arts folks.

We don’t name names for obvious reasons — and Team ASR often buys their own tickets and do not announce their presence as such at a performance — but it is important to note that each Team ASR review is screened by one or more ASR Editors to insure a ‘fair’ review, warts and all, when appropriate.

The goal of Team ASR Reviews is to communicate directly with the technical staffs who are largely ignored by most reviewers. These behind the scenes folks work their collective butt’s off to mount a show, and they deserve well-intentioned constructive criticism from fellow artists as appropriate — and ditto for well-earned praise.

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Technical Review! August Wilson Play Works Hard — by Team ASR

NOTE: The following commentary is focused primarily on the production, direction, and technical aspects of Theater and Performing Arts.

Two Trains Running is Mr. Wilson’s seventh effort in his ten-part series of plays entitled The Pittsburgh Cycle. The play was first produced by the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, and later opened on Broadway in the spring of 1992 at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The version I’m reviewing is in The City now and is presented at the Gough Street Playhouse and produced by Multi Ethnic Theater in association with Custom Made Theater.

The play gives us a complex story based on the lives of ordinary people, a volatile turning point in American history. The location is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the racially charged world of 1969. Mr. Memphis Lee’s threadbare cafe is a regular stop for neighborhood folks all trying to understand the cultural maelstrom of the late 1960s. The regulars do their best to comprehend the swirling tides of change, but don’t always get the results they intended.

As the play begins, the city block on which Mr. Memphis’s diner is located is due to be torn down in a city renovation project. One of Mr. Memphis’ regular customers is the rich undertaker across the street from Mr. Memphis’ café. The undertaker urges Mr. Memphis to accept his offer to buy the cafe, but his price is unacceptable to the stoic Mr. Memphis. He’s been swindled out of property before and he’s determined to stand his ground this time, and get what he thinks his property is worth.

Another regular to the café is Sterling, a petty ex-con just out of the penitentiary with big dreams for his future. Then there’s Wolf, a bookie, a hustler (in the survival sense of the word) and a man-about-town.  He dresses to the nine’s and is equally focused on the details of his own success.

Risa is the only female in the cast. A waitress of quiet dignity occupying the still point in this play, she has self-inflicted cuts on her legs, self-mutilation as a fence between herself and men. Hambone is a mentally disturbed man who seeks comfort in the friendship Risa shows him. He speaks infrequently but when he does it’s one variation or another of the phrase, “He gonna give me my ham. I want my ham!”

The senior character of the play is Holloway. He has seen it all and his role is steady anchor, neighborhood philosopher, and ardent proponent of a legendary 322-year-old woman prophet down the street. Although never seen, she radiates a strong influence over the actions of many of the characters in the play, and serves as a reminder of the heritage of Black Americans.

With these strong roots, Mr. Wilson grows a powerful theatrical experience and a strong history lesson for those of us not witness to Black life in 1969.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

The set design—that of a scruffy café so much a part of neighborhoods everywhere—was satisfactory. The turquoise booths were period perfect. The bare bones kitchen also fitting. (Score: 5/10)

Set Construction:

Unpainted plywood here-and-there underlined a business managed with small dollars and ‘just enough’ repairs. Set construction showed care. Making a set look down-on-its-luck without making it look slapdash is harder than one might imagine. The set designer/builders (Lewis Campbell and David Hampton) did so here. (Score: 6/10)

Stage Management:

Cues were solid and well timed, as were actor entrances. Although technically a directing note, actor exits should be quicker in order to drive the play forward. (Score: 5/10)

Sound:

Sound design was satisfactory. (Score: 5/10)

Props:

Props were period and detailed. Even though no one in the play ate anything requiring catsup, the always ubiquitous red plastic catsup dispenser appeared one-third full. The bowl of beans eaten by Hambone were appealing, as was the coffee dispensed by Risa. (Score: 7/10)

Costumes:

Costumes were period 1969 in look and nicely selected (especially those for Wolf.) Shoe selection was nice. Accessory selection was also good.  A bit more attention to fit would render some costumes perfect. (Score: 5/10)

Direction:

As directed by Lewis Campbell with Esperanza Catubig assisting, Two Trains Running runs 3 hours including one intermission. The running time is important, as slowness of pacing was an issue on opening night. This play requires pacing more like everyday life, with the dynamics of neighbors talking with neighbors they’ve known for years; that is to say briskly, sometimes obliquely, with awareness of personal quirks and hot buttons, and with every intent to find or deliver a message, a joke, a jab, or a cut.

The actors cast in this production were certainly more than capable of doing this sort of work, but on opening night the presentation was too muted. (Note: It was extremely hot in the theater this night and I’m sure that had an impact on the actors. I know it had one on the audience.) (Score: 5/10)

Lights:

Lighting design was satisfactory with one note: the kitchen was never lit, not even by a single bulb. This seemed incorrect.  (Score: 5/10)

Casting:

Solid acting highlighted by Fabian Herd (Wolf), Vernon Medearis (West), and Stuart Elwyn Hall (Holloway.) All three actors demonstrated a keen ability to do what so many actors fail at: to listen to what is being said by other actors, instead of simply waiting for their turn to speak. These gentlemen delivered acting in considered gradations, rendering layered performances which would hold them in good stead with notable theaters across this country.  (Score: 7/10)

Overall Production:

A good effort to present what will no doubt become an American classic. More pacing, quicker exits, and a tad more attention to costume fit would polish the production. The production crew needs to think more about patron comfort on hot August nights; additional fans would help make the tight confines of the Gough Street Playhouse more amenable to sellout audiences. (Score: 6/10)

Reviewer Score:

There is little doubt August Wilson has a ‘reserved seat’ in the pantheon of Greatest American Playwrights. Seeing Multi Ethnic Theater’s production of Two Trains Running shows why. (Score: 6/10)

Overall Score: (62/110) Good work.

Two Trains Running continues through August 30th at the Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough St, San Francisco, CA 94109.

Industry Commentary…

  • “Vivid and uplifting… pure poetry… remarkable!”—Time
  • “A symphonic composition with a rich lode of humanity running through it.”—Los Angeles Times
  • Winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play Award
  • “Vivid and uplifting… pure poetry… remarkable!”—Time
  • “A symphonic composition with a rich lode of humanity running through it.”—Los Angeles Times
  • “His language is golden: rich in humor and poetry and redolent of a colorful vernacular.”—Wall Street Journal
  • “Has an unassailable authenticity… a lot of life and a lot of humor… By the end, a small world has been utterly transformed.”—Variety
  • “These characters are fully imagined—they live… reeling out stories about their past, their angers, their dreams.”—Washington Post
  • “Wilson’s most adventurous and honest attempt to reveal the intimate nature of history… glorious storytelling… touching and often funny… a penetrating revelation of a world hidden from view.”—Frank Rich, The New York Times

Also Available…

Script available here. 

Script, Samuel French  available here.

Study Guide available here.

Paybill from Broadway run available here.

Discount Tickets are also available on Goldstar

Tickets are available on the theater’s website.

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians, dancers, technicians, stage managers, and a host of other arts folks.

We don’t name names for obvious reasons — and Team ASR often buys their own tickets and do not announce their presence as such at a performance — but it is important to note that each Team ASR review is screened by one or more ASR Editors to insure a ‘fair’ review, warts and all, when appropriate.

The goal of Team ASR Reviews is to communicate directly with the technical staffs who are largely ignored by most reviewers. These behind the scenes folks work their collective butt’s off to mount a show, and they deserve well-intentioned constructive criticism from fellow artists as appropriate — and ditto for well-earned praise.

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Technical Review! Shakespeare Does it Physically in Marin — by Team ASR

NOTE: The following commentary is focused primarily on the production, direction, and technical aspects of Theater and Performing Arts.

Ron Campbell has pulled off the near-impossible— he convinced the large opening-night crowd at Marin Shakespeare’s debut of their witty adaptation of Don Quixote (by Peter Anderson and Colin Heath) that he was both a man and a horse. Truly no mean feat, that.

Then again, Mr. Campbell is no mean actor. A man, a wooden broom and a watering can? Gesticulating arms and pumping legs? An energetic and comedic recitation of a classic text invigorated with new life? He’s certainly all of that, to be sure. But to stop there would be to damn with faint praise.

Instead, one simple phrase comes to mind: theatrical magic.

Mr. Campbell’s physical comedy gifts are so sublime that one could not help but believe that he was in fact Quixote himself. And Rocinante, the horse. Or both at once, in action on the stage. Mr. Campbell’s unquenchable dedication to seeing, feeling and embodying the evolving demands of each succeeding microsecond of the script and character represents a master’s thesis in acting.

Ably supporting Mr. Campbell was John R. Lewis as everyone’s favorite squire Sancho Panza. Panza translates literally in English to “belly” or “paunch”, and while Mr. Lewis was indeed suitably paunchy, he brought a world-weariness combined with a rich sense of humor and formidable physical comedy chops to a role too often played to its lowest common denominator. Solid marks for Mr. Lewis.

The play, making its U.S. debut, is ably directed by Ms. Lesley Schisgall Currier in a production that appears to a take on elements of the Commedia dell’arte style: spare sets, masked actors (thanks to the artistry of Mr. David Poznanter), and standardize costumes. Paired with hand-selected segments of the text by Miguel de Cervantes, the show unfortunately succeeds in feeling a bit like the books upon which the play is based— a bit tedious as the end draws neigh. The show starts out grandly and the first act moves quite briskly. The second act? Not so much. By the end of the show it felt somewhat like a long visit by a good friend: you’re at once delighted to have been so entertained but wish the evening’s festivities would wrap-up.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

Ms. Currier kept the set design simple and even spare, via the able design of Mr. Jackson Currier. Again, this may be intentional on her part vis-à-vis Commedia dell’arte. The back wall of the set is painted to appear as a library, featuring shelves upon shelves of books. This effect works well in Act 1, Scene 1, but once our hero had left his house in search of adventure, the library wall felt incongruous. (Score: 6/10)

Set Construction:

Set construction was solid, as the ramped “mountain” in center stage played host to a small army of people. (Score: 8/10)

Stage Management:

Stage management (from Gillian Confair) on opening night can sometimes be tricky as actors and technicians all work through opening night jitters. Such appeared to be the case here, with a few tardy scene transitions and actor entrances. Light and sound cues, however, were prompt and unobtrusive. (Score: 6/10)

Sound:

Sound levels suffered from some of the natural vagaries of outdoor theater: the actors’ voice levels dipping when they spoke off-axis to the audience, etc. The sound system speakers need bolstering, perhaps something along the lines of a couple of folded 18-inch speakers or a subwoofer to add bottom-end power to the mix. Body microphones would also have added additional presence. (Score: 5/10)

Props:

Props (from Joel Eis) were used only as needed and expertly rendered. (Score: 8/10)

Costumes:

Costumes (from Maria Chenut) tended toward a universal tan/brown in color, but were well-crafted. Care was obviously taken to bespoke the actors professionally. (Score: 8/10)

Direction:

The physical comedy scenes were well-rendered, if in need of a touch more rehearsal to make them appear a bit less, well, rehearsed. Comedic impact of the text would have benefited from tighter cue pick-ups and brisker tempo. No one knows the physical limitations of this stage better than Mr. and Mrs. Currier, so blocking was universally good throughout. (Score: 6/10)

Lights:

Lighting, like sound, can be a tricky beast outside, even in an amphitheater set below local ground level. A slightly more consistent, balanced lighting plot would have made the visual aspects of the work come off more seamlessly. (Score: 6/10)

Casting:

Full marks to Mr’s. Campbell and Lewis, as previously mentioned. The rest of the cast was competent and delivered reliable performances. (Score: 8/10)

Overall Production:

A solid, well directed new adaptation of a classic work which benefits from the efforts of one of the best physical comedians in the Bay Area. Outdoor theater comes with built-in technical challenges which were, to a large degree, successfully navigated. (Score: 7/10)

Reviewer Score:

A good outdoor effort of a version of Don Quixote which this reviewer hopes will benefit from a bit of a duration trim on its way to becoming a theatrical staple, and a tad of tempo tightening during its current run.  The play was very, very well-served by the addition of Mr. Campbell and Mr. Lewis. (Score: 7/10)

Overall Score: (75/110) Good work.

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians, dancers, technicians, stage managers, and a host of other arts folks.

We don’t name names for obvious reasons — and Team ASR often buys their own tickets and do not announce their presence as such at a performance — but it is important to note that each Team ASR review is screened by one or more ASR Editors to insure a ‘fair’ review, warts and all, when appropriate.

The goal of Team ASR Reviews is to communicate directly with the technical staffs who are largely ignored by most reviewers. These behind the scenes folks work their collective butt’s off to mount a show, and they deserve well-intentioned constructive criticism from fellow artists as appropriate — and ditto for well-earned praise.

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Theater Review! Multi Ethnic Theater Does August Wilson Proud — by Kris Neely

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks back reporting that there were more Tennessee Williams theater festivals and events sliding in between similar Shakespeare happenings than ever before. That’s a good thing, to be sure. Yet there is no doubt Mr. August Wilson will be joining those illustrious ranks soon.

Mr. Wilson exploded onto the American theater scene with critically acclaimed plays such as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, as well as Fences (1987 Tony Award, New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, Drama Desk Award, and the Pulitzer Prize) and The Piano Lesson (1990, Pulitzer Prize).

Mr. Wilson’s command of the black experience in twentieth-century America is second-to-none. His talent for shaping dialog is unquestioned. His characters are realistic, genuine, and thoughtfully rendered while his choice of language is exacting and considered. His plays, including this one, often deal with themes of community loyalty and commitment, to fair play and justice.

Two Trains Running is Mr. Wilson’s seventh effort in his ten-part series of plays entitled The Pittsburgh Cycle. The play was first produced by the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, and later opened on Broadway in the spring of 1992 at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

The play gives us a complex story based on the lives of ordinary people, a volatile turning point in American history. The location is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the racially charged world of 1969. Mr. Memphis Lee’s threadbare cafe is a regular stop for neighborhood folks all trying to understand the cultural maelstrom of the late 1960s. The regulars do their best to come to an accommodation with the swirling tides of change, but not always with the results they intended.

As the play begins, the city block on which Mr. Memphis’s diner is located is due to be torn down in a city renovation project. One of Mr. Memphis’ regular customers is the rich undertaker whose business is located across the street from the diner. The undertaker urges Mr. Memphis to accept his offer to buy the cafe, but his price is unacceptable to the stoic Mr. Memphis. He’s been swindled out of property before and he’s determined to stand his ground this time and get what he thinks his property is worth.

Another regular to the café is Sterling, a petty ex-con just out of the penitentiary with big dreams for his future. Then there’s Wolf, a bookie, a hustler (in the survival sense of the word) and a man-about-town.  He dresses to the nine’s and is equally focused on the details of his own success.

Risa is the only female in the cast. A waitress of quiet dignity occupying the still point in this play, she has self-inflicted cuts on her legs, self-mutilation as a barrier between herself and men. Hambone is a mentally disturbed man who seeks comfort in the friendship shown him by Risa. He speaks infrequently but when he does, it’s one variation or another of the phrase, “He gonna give me my ham. I want my ham!”

The senior character in the play is Holloway. He has seen it all and his role is steady anchor, neighborhood philosopher, and ardent proponent of a legendary 322-year-old woman prophet down the street. Although never seen, she radiates a strong influence over the actions of many of the characters in the play, and serves as a reminder of the heritage of Black Americans.

With these strong roots, Mr. Wilson grows a powerful theatrical experience and a strong history lesson for those of us not witness to Black life in 1969.

As directed by Lewis Campbell with Esperanza Catubig assisting, and rendered by the Multi Ethnic Theater Company and presented in the Gough Street Playhouse in San Francisco, Two Trains Running ran 3 hours including one intermission. The running time is important, as slowness of pacing was an issue on opening night. This play requires pacing more like everyday life, with the dynamics of neighbors talking with neighbors they’ve known for years; that is to say briskly, sometimes obliquely, with awareness of personal quirks and hot buttons, and with every intent to find or deliver a message, a joke, a jab, or a cut. The actors cast in this production are certainly more than capable of doing this sort of work, but on opening night the presentation was too muted. (Note: It was extremely hot in the theater this night and I’m sure that had an impact on the actors. I know it did on the audience.)

Fabian Herd was superb as Wolf, Vernon Medearis a study in subtlety and nuance as West (the undertaker), and Stuart Elwyn Hall every bit the oracle of Black life as Holloway. All three actors demonstrated a keen ability to do what so many actors fail at: to listen to what is being said by other actors, instead of simply waiting for their turn to speak. These gentlemen delivered acting in considered gradations, rendering layered performances which would hold them in good stead with notable theaters across this country.

The set design, that of a scruffy café so much a part of neighborhoods everywhere, was nicely done. The turquoise booths were period perfect. Unpainted plywood here-and-there emphasized  a business managed with small dollars and ‘just enough’ repairs. Set construction showed care. Making a set look down-on-its-luck without making it look slapdash is harder than one might imagine. The set designer/builders (Lewis Campbell and David Hampton) pulled it off nicely.

Props were period and detailed. Even though no one in the play ate anything which required catsup, the always ubiquitous red plastic catsup dispenser appeared one-third full. The bowl of beans eaten by Hambone were appealing, as was the coffee dispensed by Risa.

Costumes were period and nicely selected (especially those for Wolf.) A bit more attention to fit would render some costumes perfect.

There is little doubt August Wilson has a ‘reserved seat’ in the pantheon of Greatest American Playwrights. Seeing Multi Ethnic Theater’s production of Two Trains Running shows why.

Two Trains Running continues through August 30th at the Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough St, San Francisco, CA 94109.

Rating: Three-and-a-Half out of Five Stars

Industry Commentary…

  • “Vivid and uplifting… pure poetry… remarkable!”—Time
  • “A symphonic composition with a rich lode of humanity running through it.”—Los Angeles Times
  • Winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play Award
  • “Vivid and uplifting… pure poetry… remarkable!”—Time
  • “A symphonic composition with a rich lode of humanity running through it.”—Los Angeles Times
  • “His language is golden: rich in humor and poetry and redolent of a colorful vernacular.”—Wall Street Journal
  • “Has an unassailable authenticity… a lot of life and a lot of humor… By the end, a small world has been utterly transformed.”—Variety
  • “These characters are fully imagined—they live… reeling out stories about their past, their angers, their dreams.”—Washington Post
  • “Wilson’s most adventurous and honest attempt to reveal the intimate nature of history… glorious storytelling… touching and often funny… a penetrating revelation of a world hidden from view.”—Frank Rich, The New York Times

Also Available…

Script available here. 

Script, Samuel French  available here.

Study Guide available here.

Paybill from Broadway run available here.

Discount Tickets are also available on Goldstar

Tickets are available on the theater’s website.

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Theater Review! Laugh-Out-Loud Performance at Marin Shakes — by Kris Neely

Ron Campbell has pulled off the near-impossible— he convinced the large opening-night crowd at Marin Shakespeare’s debut of their witty adaptation of Don Quixote (by Peter Anderson and Colin Heath) that he was both a man and a horse. Truly no mean feat, that.

Then again, Mr. Campbell is no mean actor. A man, a wooden broom and a watering can? Gesticulating arms and pumping legs? An energetic and comedic recitation of a classic text invigorated with new life? He’s certainly all of that, to be sure. But to stop there would be to damn with faint praise.

Instead, one simple phrase comes to mind: theatrical magic.

Mr. Campbell’s physical comedy gifts are so sublime that one could not help but believe that he was in fact Quixote himself. And Rocinante, the horse. Or both at once, in action on the stage. Mr. Campbell’s unquenchable dedication to seeing, feeling and embodying the evolving demands of each succeeding microsecond of the script and character represents a master’s thesis in acting.

Ably supporting Mr. Campbell was John R. Lewis as everyone’s favorite squire Sancho Panza. Panza translates literally in English to “belly” or “paunch”, and while Mr. Lewis was indeed suitably paunchy, he brought a world-weariness combined with a rich sense of humor and formidable physical comedy chops to a role too often played to its lowest common denominator. Solid marks for Mr. Lewis.

The play, making its U.S. debut, is ably directed by Ms. Lesley Schisgall Currier in a production that appears to a take on elements of the Commedia dell’arte style: spare sets, masked actors, and standardize costumes. Direction was largely spot-on if a tad slow at times.

Visually, Ms. Currier kept the set design simple and even spare. Lighting and sound designs worked well, if hard as they often do in an outdoor setting. Costumes were well designed and carefully rendered. Pops and set pieces were thoughtful, spare, and effective.

Paired with hand-selected segments of the text by Miguel de Cervantes, the show unfortunately succeeds in feeling a bit like the books upon which the play is based — by the end of the show it felt somewhat like a long visit by a good friend: you’re at once delighted to have been so entertained but wish the evening’s festivities would wrap-up.

In all, a solid, well directed, new adaptation of Don Quixote which this reviewer hopes will benefit from a bit of a duration trim on its way to becoming a theatrical staple, and a tad of tempo tightening during its current run.  The play was very, very well-served by the addition of Mr. Campbell and Mr. Lewis.

***

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

                                  *******************************************

 

ASR Technical Review! Big David Mamet Results in a Small Theater — by Team ASR

NOTE: The following commentary is focused primarily on the production, direction, and technical aspects of Theater and Performing Arts.

Winner of the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Glengarry Glen Ross is David Mamet’s sizzling and gritty, claustrophobic play about a quartet of self-loathing real estate salesmen in Chicago during the mid-1980s. The 1992 film featured an all-star cast and was critically acclaimed. While there is much to be said about the art of live theatre, it would be wise to keep any comparisons to the film out of mind.

The title of the play (and the plot, really) is derived from the two real estate properties mentioned: Glengarry Highlands, a real estate development currently being sold, and Glen Ross Farms, a previous crème del le crème real estate development. A sales contest pits the salesmen against each other. Driven to desperation, they resort to manipulation, bribery and even burglary and theft to keep their jobs. The dog-eat-dog action that ensues is intense, laden with F-bombs, and brings with it all the intensity of life in a pressure cooker.

Mamet came to the public’s attention with plays including, American BuffaloSpeed the PlowOleanna, and Cryptogram. Considered a classic of 20th century theater, Glengarry Glen Ross shows Mr. Mamet at the top of his game – a key reason this play has become a regional theater staple.

So in a nutshell, how was the Shelton’s version of the show? The actors do a serviceable job with the dynamic script that’s full of rapid-fire dialogue, and the technical aspects largely delivered their intended results.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

The set in the small footprint Shelton Theater were quite effective. A Chinese restaurant, the focus of the first few scenes of the production, boasted beautiful red upholstery and was accented with maple-stained wood trim.  With clean lines, the restaurant set was complemented by a simple black lacquer table and white curtains.  The real estate office’s white walls included a well-painted marble effect that transported the audience right into the twisted business.  Both sets leveraged the Shelton Theater’s size and geometry to good effect. The sets were designed, built, and painted by Matt Shelton and Adam Stowers. (Score: 8/10)

Set Construction:

The set was carefully built to capture the essence of the environments displayed. The resulting effect was more than your run-of-the-mill set—simple yet effective. The brown stair step leading from the street into the office struck a somewhat incongruous note. (Score: 7/10)

Stage Management:

To the credit of Stage Manager, Muriel Shattack, the action behind the scenes was smooth. The backstage crew controlled the on-stage chaos with near perfect set changes and actors made entrances promptly. Lighting and sound crews were on their mark and associated cues were tight. (Score: 8/10)

Sound:

Sound design was by Alex Boyd. At the outset, Mr. Boyd’s music and mood effects inside the Chinese restaurant worked well. In contrast, the sound effects and music underscoring the key set change were overwrought, taking the audience away from the moment. (Score: 5/10)

Props: 

An important facet of a strong production is the use of effective props. Shelton’s prop designer invoked realism with matching turquoise office chairs, harmonious dishes and tea set accessories, as well as a file cabinet full of…files. By-and-large, everything was in its proper place and presented a well thought-out design. One inconsistent note was a tea bag, seen floating in the bottom of a glass coffee pot. When an actor says something to the effect that he hasn’t had a cup of coffee all day and pours same from a glass coffee pot containing a floating tea bag clearly visible to the audience, the result is unimpressive.  (Score: 7/10)

Costumes:

Costumes were realistic, pressed/ironed as appropriate and well presented. Each slimy salesman wore immaculate, pressed suits fitting for the 1980s. Shoes were stylish and polished. Style/design elements were well considered and selected.  (Score: 8/10)

Direction:

Mamet challenges directors of every experience level. Director Sasha Litovchenko succeeds for the most part. Pacing was a tad uneven in spots. It also felt like a bit more work needed to be done on the acting choices made in some of the scenes, particularly in Act 1 Scene 1. Blocking and movement were satisfactory. (Score: 5/10)

Lights:

One of the greatest challenges of the space at Shelton Theater is its low hanging ceiling. Still, the lighting design by Colin Pope captured the essence of the script for the most part. The lights were hung evenly, but on more than one occasion actors were performing between lights, in a bit of a dim zone. (Score 6/10)

Casting:

Good casting, nice mix. The seasoned actors did a good job with the material. Mr. Shelton’s work in particular was outstanding. The Eastern European accent of one of the other actors was a bit thick at times. Philip Estrin avoids clichés and nails the role of down-but-not-quite-out Shelley Levene. Matt Crawford as Moss, looks straight out of Central Casting as the schemer who launches the idea of the salesmen robbing their own office. (Score: 8/10)

Overall Production:

The Shelton Theater’s production of Mamet is a solid presentation of a great American classic. Overall, Shelton paid better-than-average attention to the technical aspects of the theater. (Score: 7/10)

Reviewer Score:

Shelton Theater’s iteration of Glengarry Glen Ross works incredibly hard to sell the intent and intensity of Mr. Mamet’s work. For the small audience on Friday night, Shelton largely delivered the goods. If you like drama, go see this solid take on an American classic. (Score: 7/10)

Overall Score: (75/110) Good work.

Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet plays through August 29th.

Tickets are $25-$50 (with discounts available) and are available online at http://www.sheltontheater.org or by calling 415.882.9100.

Show times and Place: Thursday – Saturday 8:00 pm.  Box Office and Bar open at 7:00 pm. The Shelton Theater is located at 533 Sutter St. between Powell and Mason, in San Francisco.

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians, dancers, technicians, stage managers, and a host of other arts folks.

We don’t name names for obvious reasons — and Team ASR often buys their own tickets and do not announce their presence as such at a performance — but it is important to note that each Team ASR review is screened by one or more ASR Editors to insure a ‘fair’ review, warts and all, when appropriate.

The goal of Team ASR Reviews is to communicate directly with the technical staffs who are largely ignored by most reviewers. These behind the scenes folks work their collective butt’s off to mount a show, and they deserve well-intentioned constructive criticism from fellow artists as appropriate — and ditto for well-earned praise.

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Performance Review! Brandeburg Excellent in Streisand Tribute — by Kris Neely

Kelly Brandeburg took the stage of the Society Cabaret at the Hotel Rex in San Francisco and made it her own.

In an August 1st performance that ran almost 90 minutes, Ms. Brandeburg charmed, sang, and dazzled her way into the hearts and minds of the packed house with her one woman show, My Favorite Barbra: A Tribute to the Songs of Barbra Streisand.

A graduate of the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and of The New School in New York City, Ms. Brandeburg deftly weaved Ms. Streisand’s personal story with 20 selections from her varied songbook. Marrying the singer’s history and music brought a personal and intimate tone to Ms. Brandeburg’s performance.

From opening to closing note, Ms. Brandeburg’s voice navigated the breadth and range of Ms. Streisand’s work with aplomb. It was no surprise when Ms. Brandeburg informed the mixed age audience that she had just signed a contract with the estimable Beach Blanket Babylon as an understudy for the Val Diamond role.

One minor discordant note to all this musical marvel: in the intimate confines of the Society Cabaret, miking both Ms. Brandeburg and Pianist/Musical Director John Simon Kassianides (with additional sound monitors on-stage) was overkill and detracted from the otherwise intimate nature of a professional show which organically grew more personal and private as the evening progressed.

Ms. Brandeburg’s one-woman show was solid, delightful, and a musical banquet which in the true spirit of the theater left her appreciative audience wanting even more.

Society Cabaret is located in the beautiful Hotel Rex, located at 562 Sutter Street in San Francisco, CA. For information on upcoming events, please see http://www.societycabaret.com.

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

***

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

ASR Theater Review! Shelton Theater’s ‘GGR’ Closes the Deal! — by Kris Neely

Winner of the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Glengarry Glen Ross is David Mamet’s sizzling and gritty, claustrophobic play about a quartet of self-loathing real estate salesmen in Chicago during the mid-1980s. The 1992 film featured an all-star cast and was critically acclaimed. While there is much to be said about the art of live theatre, it would be wise to keep any comparisons to the film out of mind.

The title (and for that matter the plot) of the play is derived from the two real estate properties mentioned: Glengarry Highlands, a real estate development currently being sold, and Glen Ross Farms, a previous crème del le crème real estate development. A sales contest pits the salesmen against each other. Driven to desperation, they resort to manipulation, bribery and even burglary and theft to keep their jobs. The dog-eat-dog action that ensues is intense, laden with F-bombs, and brings with it all the intensity of life in a pressure cooker.

Mamet came to the public’s attention with plays including, American BuffaloSpeed the PlowOleanna, and Cryptogram.Considered a classic of 20th century theater, Glengarry Glen Ross shows Mr. Mamet at the top of his game – a key reason this play has become a regional theater staple.

As rendered by Shelton Theater, the scenic aspects of the show were solid. A Chinese restaurant, the focus of the first few scenes of the production, boasted beautiful red upholstery and was accented with maple-stained wood trim.  With clean lines, the restaurant set was complemented by a simple black lacquer table and white curtains.  The real estate office’s white walls included a well-painted marble effect that transported the audience right into the twisted business.  Both sets leveraged the Shelton Theater’s size and geometry to good effect.

Shelton’s prop designer invoked realism with everything in its proper place and a well thought-out design. Costumes were realistic, pressed/ironed as appropriate and well presented. Costuming style/design elements were well considered and selected, showing us the best of dress for the mid-1980s. Actor traffic on and off the sets worked well.

To the credit of Stage Manager, the action behind the scenes was smooth. Lighting and sound crews were on their mark and associated cues were tight. One note: sound effects and music underscoring the key set change were a bit overdone. The lighting plot was serviceable.

From a directing perspective, Mamet challenges directors of every experience level. Director Sasha Litovchenko’s casting was solid and the seasoned actors did a good job with the material. Mr. Shelton’s work in particular was outstanding. Philip Estrin avoids clichés and nails the role of down-but-not-quite-out Shelley Levene. Matt Crawford as Moss, looks straight out of Central Casting as the schemer who launches the idea of the salesmen robbing their own office.

Overall, the Shelton Theater’s production of Mamet is a solid presentation of a great American classic. For the small audience on Friday night, Shelton largely delivered the goods. If you like drama, go see this solid take on an American classic.

Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet plays through August 29th.

Tickets are $25-$50 (with discounts available) and are available online athttp://www.sheltontheater.org or by calling 415.882.9100.

Show times and Place: Thursday – Saturday 8:00pm. Box Office and Bar open at 7:00pm

The Shelton Theater is located at 533 Sutter St. between Powell and Mason, in San Francisco.

***

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

 

ASR Theater Review! Aurora Theater Hits High Gear with ‘Detroit’ — by Kris Neely

A 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Detroit is as humorous as it is sharp. With tight writing by Lisa D’Amour (Airline Highway), the critically acclaimed play skillfully tangles the lives of a seemingly responsible older couple and a younger, more careless pair. Josh Costello ably directs Aurora Theater’s production in Berkeley, which leaves some in the audience diffident at best.

A friendly BBQ serves as a façade to the wreckage ahead in this well-structured expose’ on American life that shows just how distrusting people should be of others during oppressive economic times. At the outset, Ben (Jeff Garrett) and Mary (Amy Resnick) are a sharply drawn lower-middle class couple who fire up the grill for an All-American BBQ to welcome Sharon (Luisa Frasconi) and Kenny (Patrick Jones), a couple of drifters who move into the house next door — sans furniture.

As the neighborhood foursome bonds over backyard barbecues, remembered dreams and helping hands, their neighborly connection gets personal and accelerates into unanticipated directions, which threatens to ignite more than just their friendship.

Jeff Garrett is a Dick Van Dyke clone—with loose limbs, a rubbery face, and impeccable comedic timing. Even when the play’s focus is elsewhere, his impressive and adept listening and reactionary skills command attention. While most actors simply wait for their turn to speak, Mr. Garrett has truly mastered the art of active listening. Luisa Frasconi is, well, simply an amazing talent in bloom. It takes no stretch of the imagination to say that, one day, in the not-too-distant-future, we will all be paying large sums to see this funny, gifted lady work. Patrick Jones and Amy Resnick are solid performers.

Mr. Costello’s direction takes full advantage of the intimate space that is Aurora Theater’s main stage. His stage pictures are well-chosen, and his blocking, which can be tricky in a thrust environment like Aurora’s, almost always works smoothly.

The lighting design by Kurt Landisman is precise and skillful, at times even approaching ingenious. While most of the production is set outside the house, his clever lighting effects, used to light the interior during the tumultuous conclusion, are simple but very powerful. Using light to emphasize the denouement of Detroit is a bold choice that pays off in huge dividends.

Mikiko Uesugi’s set design masterfully takes advantage of the postage stamp stage. The attractive, solid and spare set could be a lesson in space economization for other designers. Uesui’s set construction — a wholly underappreciated aspect of live theater– was professional and well done. Theater carpenters, set construction staff, and set designers: this production is a shining example of design and handiwork.

The modern-day costumes by Christine Crook are perfect for the urban setting and complement the actors and the script.

The work backstage is deftly navigated. Set changes are flawless. Special marks go to the small backstage crew who not only maneuver what must be a chaotic backstage, but also who help the actors effect costume changes in the blink-of-an-eye, and under enormous performance pressure.

Daniel Banato resists the urge, too common in contemporary theater, to present the audience with a prop-laden set. Mr. Banato’s choices are largely complementary. His top-shelf props for the iterative grilling action are creative.

As pivotal to the plot as food and drink are, the clear sight of plastic props in lieu of legitimate consumables is an eye sore. While some productions get away with fabricated food and beverage, this piece demands the consumption of real, genuine food and ditto for the beverages which figure so prominently in the story.

Cliff Caruthers deserves special note for his very personal sound design. From subtle sound effects to music he specially produced for Detroit, Caruthers gives audiences something they rarely get today in a dramatic comedy, a well thought-out, carefully-considered and crisply rendered sound design—four stars for Mr. Caruthers.

Wesley Apfel’s stage management was tight, effective, and well executed. With as many moving parts as this production has, it’s clear Apfel’s presence and skill are in demand backstage.

Detroit’s greatest strengths lie in its technical aspects. From direction and stage management to lighting and sound, and from costumes and props to set design and construction, Aurora Theater’s production is a winner. It’s a real master class in technical artistry of contemporary theater.

Detroit ends its extended run on Sunday July 26, 2015. Tickets are available by phone on (510) 843-4822, online at http://www.auroratheater.org, or in person at the Aurora Theater Box Office, 2081 Addison St., in Berkeley.

***

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

***** ***** ***** ***** *****

 

 

 

ASR Theater Review! RVP Has a Hit with ‘Pirates of Penzance’ — by Kris Neely

The Pirates of Penzance, that stalwart classic penned by messieurs Gilbert and Sullivan, as rendered in Ross Valley Players’ last show of the season, is pretty much the model of what a modern community theater musical should be.

For those unfamiliar with the comic opera staple, here is the plot in a nutshell:  set on the rocky coast of Cornwall, England, the play, which sends up Victorian-era values, begins with a group of not-too-nice pirates who are celebrating the birthday of one of their own, Frederic, who has reached his twenty-first year. Finally having served the full length of his required time with the pirates, he decides to strike off on his own and become an upstanding citizen – which may even mean bringing the pirates to justice. This turns out to be a tricky prospect indeed, especially when Frederic’s freedom is called into question! It seems Frederic was born on February 29th, a birth date that only appears every four years — and even pirates can do that math. Insert singing matrons, dancing pirates, eyelash-batting lasses, clueless cops and a snappy major-general (more on him later), and in the end all winds up peachy-keen with the world, with all the he’s and she’s ending up with the right he’s and she’s.

Singing propels the story: fourteen songs in Act One and a matching number in Act Two. All that and an intermission in two hours. The result is, as always with Gilbert & Sullivan, a rousing good tale of duty done right.

Few stage directors know how to put actors into stage pictures as well as James Dunn. Mr. Dunn positions actors with such precision, sureness and balance that one could pluck a B&W Polaroid snapshot (if such a thing still existed) out of a stack of 500 directors’ scenes and know immediately it belonged to Mr. Dunn.

Mr. Dunn’s stagings to date have been Master’s theses in scene tableau. He earns full marks here as his hand and eye retain their touch in Pirates. Given the obvious spatial restrictions, lighting limitations and distinctive visual quirks of The Barn, that’s saying a lot.

Speaking of a master’s touch, the same meticulousness and seasoned expertise were apparent in Michael Berg’s costumes. It’s fair to say that Mr. Berg’s costumes were, with all respect to Mr. Dunn’s stage pictures, a hefty percentage of what made the production colorful and powerful. By the time the intermission rolled around, seven peacocks had gotten out of the business.

While we’re on the subject of hues, Ron Krempetz’s imaginatively simple set, adroitly executed by Michael Walraven, enjoyed the benefits of lighting designer Dhyanis’ (yep – one name) equally developed sense and appreciation for tint. Avoiding the cartoonish effects and crayon coloring that sadly so often accompany regional renditions of musicals of this stripe, Dhyanis showed restraint, and a keen eye, which permitted the set to support the show in style. Delightful work.

Then there was Norman A. Hall.

Holding the audience’s heart in the palm of his hand, Mr. Hall delivered a performance that alone was worth the price of admission. Aspiring actor Major-Generals, take note of Mr. Hall as The Very Model.

Pirates premiered in the Big Apple in 1879. In 1980, Joe Papp and the trusty New York City Public Theater revived the show and gave it a modern tonal makeover, driving a broader musical comedy style with the play as well, and as a result the show’s popularity has swelled for new generations. At Ross Valley Players, opening night 2015 served this tradition.

Some minor areas need smoothing-out, but there’s more than enough technical artistry and acting/singing/dancing pizazz to charm its audience.

Show dates are:

  • Thursdays 7:30 pm on July 23, 30 & Aug. 6 & 13
  • Fridays 8:00 pm on July 24, 31 & Aug. 7 & 14
  • Saturdays 8:00 pm on July 25 and Aug. 1, 8 & 15
  • Sundays 2:00 pm on July 26 and Aug. 2, 9 & 16

For tickets and other information, consult the Ross Valley Players website atwww.rossvalleyplayers.com or call their Box Office on (415) 456-9555.

Rating: Three-and-a-Half out of Five Stars

***

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

 

***** ***** ***** ***** *****