ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Seafus Smith — Singer/Musician/Sound Designer/Music Director/Scenic Designer (That’s All..?)

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Seafus Smith

Seafus Chatmon-Smith is a singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, music director, sound designer, and scenic designer. He is a recipient of a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle “Excellence in Theatre” award for his 2019 scenic design of Admissions for Los Altos Stage Company.

A California native who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and in the Central Valley, his career in entertainment spans from onstage to behind-the-scenes. In the mid-to-late 2000s, he played in various bands before going on to front his own band, Vasco Skys, formed by him and drummer Richard Messenger III. In 2010 he joined the band Dallas, (now known as Bryan Dallas) as keyboardist and background vocalist. After playing FM 107.7’s Bone Bash X concert, he decided to take a break from the music stage.

Seafus’ first work in theatre was as a student, in Las Positas College’s 2006 production of Macbeth, as a sound designer. He began working in entertainment staging and lighting in 2012, which ultimately led him back into the theatre, first as a sound engineer/designer, then into music directing and scenic design.

After sound designing Bay Area Children’s Theatre’s Fancy Nancy Splendiferous Christmas in 2016, he began music directing with James and the Giant Peach JR, 2017, Junie B Jones JR, 2018. Dragon Theatre’s 2018 production of Equivocation would bring him to his first scenic design. His next design was Lohman Theatre’s 2018 production of She Kills Monsters, followed by Los Positas College’s 2019 production of Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Odd Stupid Tales.

Seafus is currently designing the Steel Magnolias set for Los Altos Stage Company, originally slated for the spring season of 2020, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic has been pushed to the spring of 2021.

***

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

SS: Though I have worn many different hats in theatre, and still do, my introduction into the inner workings of the theatre was in college where I took acting and technical theatre classes. I fell in love with the process.

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

SS: The first show I did was a production of My Son Pinocchio, as a sound engineer.

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

SS: I’ve been involved with five different theatre companies—from children’s theatre to high school, to college and community theatre. I’ve been working in theatre in various capacities since 2013.

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

SS: Truthfully I don’t know what I’m doing, other than trying to do my best. Not sure what kind of success I’ve achieved just yet, but having received an award from SFBATCC, I have hope that I’m headed in the right direction.

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

SS: I’ve worked for companies that have a specific focus, but I myself strived to work on any and all projects that tell great stories. Hopefully inspiring new dreamers like myself, to create new worlds we’ve yet to experience.

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

SS: It’s two people really: Michael Rinaldi and the late Jeremy Hamm, educators that have done amazing things in their lives to enrich the lives of others as well as my own.

ASR: With the pandemic, it will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How are you coping with the shutdown?

SS: As an independent artist, this time has and continues to be difficult for me, as I’m sure it has for our entire community both on the small and large scale. Right now it’s hard as shows have been postponed with the uncertainty that they will ever go up, though I remain positive and hopeful that in time things will get better.

ASR: How has the crisis affected your planning for the coming seasons? How do you envision the future for the theater community overall?

SS: Well to the first question.. . All of my shows that were in progress that aren’t canceled, have been postponed until the 2021 spring season. And to the second.. . I’m hopeful that in the future things will pick back up, though I know it’s going to take some time.

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?

SS: AB5 was passed just before the COVID-19 crisis, so I have yet to really experience its impact, though I’m sure it will bring about many changes to the contractual agreement side of things. I’m sure we will work out a way for art to continue as it should.

…I’m also a sucker for amusement parks…

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

SS: From the first time I heard the original cast recording, my favorite musical of all time is Phantom of the Opera. From the score and story to the dancing and technical theatrical gymnastics, to me it is all that you could ask for.

My favorite comedy is Noises Off. As someone who has spent so much time backstage as both a performer and crew member, I can give first-hand accounts of the hilarity that inevitably comes from behind the curtain. As for dramas… Tyler Perry’s Madea Goes to Jail is one of my absolute faves, though I really like most all of his shows.

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

SS: Romeo and Juliet would be the most over-performed and yes, it could be put in the vault.

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

SS: It would have to be sets. One of my favorite things to do is to imagine the world in which the story takes place and bring what’s in my mind to life. It can be a powerful thing giving a visible voice to a story. Look at Hollywood!

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

SS: Given the current climate this may be an unpopular opinion but . . . Tom Hanks. The talent he poses in emoting is something striking, both on the surface as well as in the depths of the characters he chooses to portray.

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

SS: As a performer, I try to practice my craft as much as possible, then I do a full body and vocal warmup. All dependent on what part I’m playing of course. And to relax after. . . I love a good gathering with friends. I don’t really sleep much, maybe go to a movie or chill on the couch with a nice bottle of wine.

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

SS: Really it takes more than this, but if you don’t have these three things, you won’t be able to get very far with me. So…

1. Focus

2. An understanding of conscious learning.

3. Flexibility.

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

SS: The relationship between myself and the story, as well as everyone involved. My belief is, if you have a great story and a wonderful team, then anything is truly possible.

ASR: What’s the most excruciating screw-up you see onstage?

SS: When someone has cast an actor that can’t sing in a musical. Nobody wants to hear a cat being tortured for two hours, and we all know it happens.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

SS: Due to COVID-19, I am currently out of work. Normally when not working on a specific show I work for an entertainment lighting and staging company, as well as in various personal music endeavors.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

SS: As a singer-songwriter and record producer I’m usually making music when not working. However, now with so much more time on my hands, I’m learning the craft of screenplays. I’m also a sucker for amusement parks, beaches, and hiking.

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

SS: Music-making would be number one on the list. I love to dance and have been a choreographer for multiple projects. Cinema is one of my all-time great loves, I would love to direct and be in a film one day. In my late teens, I was a magician. From painting to building, sculpting, and most things in between. I have either done it, do it, or enjoy watching it being done.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

SS: I’d say…

1. No making noise before 10 a.m.

2. Bring your own bottle of sauterne.

3. No acts of hate or violence!

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

SS: A circumcision.

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

SS: Been caught sneaking into a concert.

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

SS: 1. Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal,” because I love the choreography in that video and love to dance to it.

2. Prince’s “Partyman,” because as a kid I wanted to be Batman, and still do!

3. “Stuck,” a song I wrote about how I feel during this COVID-19 pandemic.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

SS: Sunglasses are a must at all times. As long as I have a pair we’re ok.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

SS: I have a healthy respect for human life so the only thing for me in this category would be rock climbing! You have to take risks in life to move forward. I believe you take risks whether you choose to or not. Daring to live is risky, and sitting on the sidelines is to risk never having lived at all.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

SS: “It’s working, it’s working”—Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars.

-30-

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

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: One-on-One With North Bay’s Multi-talented Anthony Martinez

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Anthony Martinez is an actor and musician based in Santa Rosa. He most recently appeared in David Templeton’s critically acclaimed Drumming With Anubis, a production that won a 2019 “Ensemble” award from the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Film credits: Donovan Reid, The Last Hit, Quick, Ghettoblaster, The Animal, Cheaper by the Dozen, Bottle Shock. Television: Love Kills (Investigation Discovery), World’s Astonishing Stories (Nippon TV), World’s Crime Mysteries (Nippon TV), 13 Reasons Why, numerous commercials and industrials for clients such as Polaroid, Apple, Save Energy, Food Network, AARP, and many more. Theater: Left Edge Theater (Zombietown- TBA nomination, This Random World, Drumming with Anubis, Sweat), Spreckels Theater Company (Guys & Dolls, Forever Plaid, 1776– TBA/SFBATCC nomination), 6th Street Playhouse (La Cage Aux Folles, Kiss Me Kate), Lucky Penny Productions (Funny Girl), Novato Theater Company (Next to Normal, Into the Woods– TBA and SFBATCC nominations), Cinnabar Theater (Forever Plaid, Fiddler on the Roof, Man of La Mancha), 42nd Street Moon (Girl Crazy, On a Clear Day, Dear World).

In addition to his stage and film work, Anthony is a vocalist and multi-instrumentalist who performs with his own band “The Core,” tours nationally as keyboardist for Cash & King, a Tribute to Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley, and Petty Rocks, a Tribute to Tom Petty, and is the founder and tenor vocalist with “Comfort & Joy,” the Bay Area’s premiere a cappella holiday vocal quartet.

Anthony Martinez

 

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

AM: I was actually a musician before becoming an actor. As a kid, I took piano and guitar lessons and played in rock bands. I never did theater as a kid. Right after high school, I got into a car accident and, while I was recuperating, most of what was on TV in the middle of the day were soap operas. I remember watching them thinking “I can do that.”

My sister had a co-worker who was a part-time commercial actor in the Bay Area, and said “OK, prove it.”

Through her co-worker, I got hooked up with SF on-camera training classes and casting agents. From there, I got my first agent and first acting jobs (a national commercial and a small part in a movie in LA) without ever having set foot onstage. I then met a theater artist from LA with a theater company and fell in love with live theater.

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

AM: That would be Holy Ghosts by Romulus Linney. Good play. I wish more companies would produce it. I have never seen another production other than the one I was in. I think the reason it’s seldom produced is because it calls for live snake handling!

It’s about a religious snake-handling congregation in the south and, yes, for my first play I had to take up live snakes onstage every night. What an introduction to live theater!

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

AM: Wow. Let’s see… I think 17 different theater companies in the Bay Area.

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

AM: That’s a great question. I have to say Marvin Klebe, the founder of Cinnabar Theater. He not only gave me my first professional job, the moment I met him he was so kind, so knowlegable, so supportive… he really inspired me be the best I could be.

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

AM: For drama, I love Angels in America, The Compleat Female Stage Beauty, and A Steady Rain. Comedies I love are Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo, and Vanya, Sasha, Masha and Spike. Musicals… Next to Normal, Falsettos, and everything and anything by Sondheim.

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

AM: I’m currently an Associate Artist at Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa, so I’d have to say Drumming with Anubis, Hand to God, and A Steady Rain.

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

AM: The Music Man.

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

AM: A musical called Triumph of Love. It had a very short life on Broadway in the 90s, but it is so wonderful. My old theater company in Marin did it and it was so charming. The audience loved it. I am always astounded that more companies don’t do it.

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play?

AM: I would say Titus Andronicus, but I am a horror movie fan, so I’m biased!

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

AM: A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, for sure.

The dog took center stage and… followed its natural instincts… …

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

AM: Sound design. I am a musician so I really vibe with the impact sound and music can have in evoking mood.

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

AM: Wow. That is so, so hard. I personally know so many astounding actors, but I will pick someone I know only from their work. I am a big fan of Craig Marker. He is always amazing.

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

AM: For musicals, I do vocal exercises and light physical warmup. For plays, I do a physical warmup and go over my lines! After a performance, I like to unwind with an adult beverage, but if I have a performance the next day, never tequila. It shreds my voice.

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

AM: Hmmmm…

1. Be on time.

2. Be off book ASAP.

3. Always be helpful and cooperative to everyone involved in the production, even if you’ve had a bad day.

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

AM: I have to say the one with my sister, Vicki. She is a stage manager at Left Edge Theatre and it’s nice to be able to work together and share that common interest.

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

AM: It wasn’t technically a screw-up, but during a production of Camelot I was in, the dog playing Pellinore’s dog proceeded to completely steal a scene doing… something dogs do. The dog took center stage and… followed its natural instincts, looking right out at the audience. The audience was roaring with laughter and the stunned cast onstage was just frozen. I wasn’t onstage at the time (thank God), just watching from the wings, but I was laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

AM: Probably when I split my pants completely onstage during a performance… in a theater in the round! No wings to dash off into!

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

AM: I was in the audience of a local musical when a drunk person climbed onstage, waving at the audience and then at her friend in the cast on stage (who was mortified), and trying to conduct the orchestra. It seemed like she was up there for an eternity and I kept wondering “When is someone gonna do something?” Finally, an ASM came out and got her offstage. So awkward.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

AM: I worked as an administrator at a community college for many years. Now I am lucky enough to be able to work for myself as a consultant and teacher.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

AM: I am an avid martial artist and instructor, as well as a musician. I also sing, play keyboards and guitar, and work as a sideman for many local and touring artists.

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

AM: I do lots of music (live and recording) and on-camera work (industrial films, commercials, and movies). I also practice martial arts. Does that count?

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

AM: Ahh…

1. No talking in the audience during a performance.

2. No nuts in brownies or cookies.

3. Kindness to all animals.

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

AM: A colonoscopy.

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

AM: I’m still working on that. ;)

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

AM: Protesting or used martial arts in self-defense (maybe at the same time).

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

AM: I have many, many pairs of shoes.

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

AM: A French Bulldog.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

AM: Nope. I am not a daredevil. I have had enough life-threatening excitement in my life already and lived to tell the tales—those are stories for another time—so I now crave calmness. But I do love rollercoasters!

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

AM: “Just because they could, they never stopped to think if they should.”- Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park. Good life advice.

-30-

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

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Feeling the Beat with Transcendence Theatre Company’s Music Director Daniel Weidlein

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Winner of a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle award for Transcendence Theatre Company’s 2019 production of A Chorus Line, Daniel Weidlein is a music producer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and music director based in Los Angeles.

Originally from Boulder, Colorado, Daniel has enjoyed a diverse career spanning many parts of the entertainment industry, from acting in Academy Award-winner Whiplash, to performing and music directing on season 3 of NBC’s The Sing Off, to writing and producing Billboard charting music for artists like Blake McGrath, Stan Taylor, and Miss Peppermint. He owns and operates BioSoul Music, a boutique recording studio in LA. In addition to his work as music director and orchestrator for Sonoma County-based Transcendence Theater Company, Daniel has been integral in the development of new musicals such as The Mollyhouse by Richard Hanson and Divya Maus, and Bottleshock by James Sasser and Charles Burwell.

***

Daniel Weidlein. Photo by Taryn Dudley.

 

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

DW: From a very young age I acted in musicals, and always loved film musicals in particular, so it’s in my bones. But as I grew older, I felt the call to avenues of performing music.

Professionally, I have worked as a music producer, arranger, music director, instrumentalist, and singer. In almost every single one of those capacities I eventually was brought to the intersection point of the Venn diagram of music and theater.

A major turning point in that regard was the work I did with Morgan Karr in the pop music realm, but ultimately it led me to the work I do in the Bay Area with Transcendence Theatre Company.

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

DW: The Grifters—a musical theatre adaptation of the book-turned-film with book and lyrics by Joe Giuffre, with music (and musical direction) by yours truly in 2013.  Imagine—a theatrical concert of original music from various shows with Transcendence Theatre Company in 2015.

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

DW: Ahh…Transcendence Theatre Company (Sonoma County), Fogg Theatre Company (San Francisco), NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts (New York City).

ASR: When was your present company formed?

DW: TTC set down roots in Sonoma in 2011 and has been growing ever since!

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

DW: Bringing the Broadway experience to the Sonoma Valley!

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

DW: My fiancé! Divya Maus is an incredible composer and lyricist (wrote The Mollyhouse with Richard Hanson and is in development on a new show, Elijah, that she has written herself).

I serve as the music director, orchestrator, and general editor for her shows. Being able to build her vision from the ground up has helped me grow faster in this business than any “gig.”

 

….Les Miserables had its place, but we don’t need to keep beating it over our own heads.

 

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

DW: Transcendence has been putting on a wonderful online season of shows comprised of highlights from the past ten summers of shows in Jack London State park. There’s one more online show this coming weekend, Sep. 11-13, to commemorate their annual Gala fundraiser!

ASR: How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your planning for coming seasons?

DW: Phew…where to begin? Let’s just hope we can all be back in person in the theater next year…

ASR: How do you envision the future the theater community overall?

DW: I truly believe that theater is going to come back stronger than ever. Nothing replaces an in-person theatrical experience, and the kindling that’s keeping the drive and passion of idle performers all across this country is going to ignite into a brilliant blaze once those hearts and voices and feet are unleashed on the stage again.

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

DW: West Side Story is a no-brainer. I love Parade. I love Angels in America (I so wish I could have seen the recent revival). I love Hadestown!

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

DW: Transcendence has only done one full musical so far (the rest are handcrafted reviews and concerts from the Broadway lineage)—A Chorus Line—but it was a blast! Chicago was slated for 2020…

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

DW: Les Miserables had its place, but we don’t need to keep beating it over our own heads.

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

DW: I love Rent, but it’s become that song that’s been played one too many times. I think it may actually age really well if we just hit pause.

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

DW: I’m a huge fan of Cole Porter’s music, and yet I will bashfully admit that I’ve only seen Kiss Me Kate. The rest of my experience of his music is through the jazz world.

But I think this is the perfect answer to your question…because his musicals don’t get staged enough!

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

DW: Seems hard to call any of them underrated…but I’d say Much Ado About Nothing. The tragedies get the credit they deserve, and have deep themes that still very much resonate today, but I think what stands out about Much Ado is that it feels so current, and so modern.

Not just thematically, but in the actual writing. Update the language and the writing and humor feel like they’re part of the canon of indie comedic film writing that I love so much.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

DW: Hamlet. It’s great…I often feel like I just want to read it though. If you’re going to put it on, please give me a fresh reason to do so!

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

DW: Light and projections. I’m fascinated with how much you can influence the audience experience with lighting.

I remember seeing Fun Home and being so captivated by how powerful the lighting and projections were. Super simple, yet so powerful.

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

DW: I can’t say her name enough—Lexy Fridell. One of the most brilliant comedic actresses I’ve ever seen in any context, and you Bay Area folks have her all to yourself now in Sonoma after her return from stints in LA and NY.

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

DW: It’s all about building adrenaline so it doesn’t slam into you when the performance starts. So I like to have a little coffee, move my body around a lot, and do a few mental run-throughs of exciting moments of the show.

Afterward, I eat. A lot. All that adrenaline burns calories!

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

DW:  Great question.

1. It’s all about relationships. Great work is meaningless if you don’t do it in conjunction with all the other people and moving parts that make a show possible.

2. Learn what makes your work unique, and do everything to exploit and celebrate it, rather than try to adapt it to the “norm.”

3. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. Make bold choices—make interesting choices—and let the work and/or the people around you (but not the critics!) inform whether those choices are working or need to be altered.

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

DW: There are so many valuable friendships that I have developed through theater. I think the beauty of the theater world is the work requires you to go deep on a personal level with the material—and you’re spending exorbitant amounts of time with one another—so inevitably you end up going deep with your peers during the process.

Compared to most other spheres of my life, I’ve definitely developed more deeply consistent relationships in theater than in any other.

I’ll highlight one great friendship with Tony Gonzalez, a frequent director and choreographer at Transcendence. Tony and I were both new to the creative team in 2016 and were tasked with co-designing and leading the high octane dance show of that year.

The entire process was a masterclass in “yes, and” from the creation side and still to this day is one of my favorite shows I’ve ever put on a stage. With that foundation, Tony has become someone I can share any thought, any concern, any emotion with freely, and he’s always the most supportive and caring friend anyone could ask for!

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

DW: I’ve seen audience members try to get hand-on with actors coming through the aisles on numerous occasions…please don’t

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

DW: I do not! I write and produce music (mostly for other artists…so it’s KINDA a day job…) all day every day when I’m not music directing or playing saxophone and piano.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

DW: Hiking, cooking, basketball, my dog Puri Bhaji.

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

DW: “John Boy” by Brad Mehldau — it feels like the perfect expression of the curiosity I was talking about earlier.

“Bad Religion” by Frank Ocean — this is the song that can freeze me in my tracks anywhere at anytime. It explores life in a raw, painful way that is so relatable. And Frank’s voice is the ultimate vehicle for expressing that quest.

“Fire in the Sky” by Daniel Weidlein — thought it would be fun to include one of my own. This is the title track off of one of my jazz albums and is really accurate example of how I sometimes can articulate my thoughts and emotions better musically than verbally.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

DW: I’m a big jewelry fan in general. Earrings, rings, necklaces. I love making them all work within my wardrobe.

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

DW: An ant. Sounds scary, but it’s insane how much they can carry at their current size. Just imagine…

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, sky diving?

DW: I’ve done a bit of rock climbing. I’m not great with heights, so I feel like I need to conquer that at some point and go sky diving.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

DW: “I’m curious what makes you so curious,” from Django Unchained. I’m notoriously curious, and one of the things that captivates me most is what drives other people!

-30-

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

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: ASR Meets Husband-and-Wife Stage Talents Michael Scott Wells and Danielle DeBow

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Among the Bay Area’s few married couples who are equally immersed in theater, Michael Scott Wells and Danielle DeBow frequently appear together onstage. Both are Associate Artists with Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions, but their art frequently takes them to other venues. They also work together away from the theater, and have a toddler—the very definition of togetherness.

Michael Scott Wells: Born in Southern California and raised in the Bay Area, Michael has been a part of the theater community for the past fifteen years as an actor, director, fight choreographer, sound designer, casting associate, and musician.

He has appeared on stage recently for CCCT (Bright Star), Sonoma Arts Live (Gypsy, Always Patsy Cline, Hello Dolly). Performances with Lucky Penny Productions, where he is an Associate Artist, include I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change; Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (TBA Award – Featured Actor), Clue: the Musical, Hands on a Hardbody, Annie, The Tasting Room, and Forever Plaid.

Outside of the Bay Area, he was fortunate enough to be a part of the first national tour as Big Anthony in Strega Nona the Musical!, and worked for that production as Associate Technical Director.

 

Danielle DeBow: Danielle grew up on the stage and studied Theatre and Dance at UC Davis. Dancer turned film actress, turned musical theatre enthusiast, she fell in love with the immediacy and fellowship of the theatre.

She was most recently seen as Alice in Bright Star at CCCT and Rebecca in The Tasting Room at Lucky Penny. You may have seen her at Sonoma Arts Live as Irene Malloy in Hello Dolly, Patsy Cline in Always, Patsy Cline (TBA and Marquee Theatre Award), and Louise in Gypsy.

Danielle is proud to be an Associate Artist at Lucky Penny, her home away from home. When she’s not on stage, you’ll likely find her outdoors chasing her one-year-old and fur babies or finding new ways to turn 90s pops song into folk with her hubby.

Michael Scott Wells
Danielle DeBow

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

MW: I’ve always loved to tell stories. My family can regale you with the multitude of puppet shows and make-believe plays I made them sit through as a child. I participated in a number of church plays as well. Then I took a hiatus to focus on sports. All the sports. In high school, a friend asked if I could help stage manage a show he was working on. The bug re-bit me and I never looked back.

DD: I spent much of my childhood on stage dancing. In fourth grade I moved to a new elementary school that focused on learning through musical performance and that is where I fell in love with the art and immediacy of theatre.

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

MW: Miss Saigon in 2005 at Diablo Light Opera Company

DD: The Nutcracker, 1992, Bolshoi West

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

MW: I don’t think I can say just one person or company. Every member of the theater community I’ve had the opportunity to work with has helped shape my life in ways I can truly never thank them enough for.

DD: Many amazing, talented, and compassionate teachers, directors, and crew members have impacted me in ways I’ll be eternally grateful, but I must thank my parents for believing in me and encouraging me to do what I love. They instilled confidence in me that allowed me to pursue opportunities and take risks leading me to where I am today.

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

DD: The shutdown has been a great challenge. The theatre is where we go to escape, to fill back up when the world drains us. While we miss our theatre family more than words could ever properly describe, we’ve been able to fill at least some of the void jamming in our living room with our one-year-old.

ASR: How do you envision the future for the theater community?

MW: The arts by nature are innovative and revolutionary, so I have no doubt that while this current situation is extremely disheartening for the community, we will all come out of this stronger, more passionate, and more in-tune with who we are as artists and performers.

This time away from the stage, and more importantly, my theatre family has reaffirmed my true love for it. It’s not something that can be created over a zoom call—it’s the tangible aspects I’m craving: the energy exuding from the audience, the jitters in your stomach pre-show, the rush of joy as the overture starts, the sweaty hugs post-show, and the unforgettable conversations in the wings with cast and crew. I know we will get back to it, and I’m proud of the community and companies that are finding ways to bring opportunities for us to share our craft and stories in new ways while we’re restricted from gathering during the pandemic.

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

DD : While many shows stand out for me, the three shows that top my list are Godspell, Always Patsy Cline, and Bright Star.

MW: Godspell, Big River, and Evil Dead, the Musical.

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

DD: Costumes, without a doubt. I’m in constant awe of the men and women who pour their hearts and souls into the costumes we wear on stage. They’re tasked with near-impossible requests and somehow end up making us look beautiful (or hideous depending on the requirements), period-appropriate, and tailored, all while ensuring our frocks can handle our quick changing, jumping, falling, dancing, and sweating through them.

MW: That’s a tough choice. It’s a toss-up between lighting and sound for me. There’s something about creating the atmosphere of a moment to make not only the audience but the storytellers feel that moment deep in their gut. That’s what excites me.

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

DD: Dyan McBride is one of my favorite people to watch on stage. Not to mention, one of the most supportive, humble, and passionate actors to work beside. She’s reliable, devoted, and brings out the best in those around her. Her attention to detail, poise, and comedic timing are impeccable. I aspire to captivate an audience as she can.

MW: It’s been a while since I’ve seen in him in anything, but Joel Roster is truly one of the finest actors I have ever witnessed on stage. I could watch him read the phone book. He is never anything but 100% genuine in everything that he does. I have never laughed harder or felt so deeply than when Joel tells a story.

……. asking a stranger to borrow their popcorn bucket to throw up in.

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

DD: My warm-up varies drastically by the show, but once I get a routine, it must not be broken (kidding/not kidding). I always do a few push-ups right before I hit the stage to shake the jitters and get my blood going. Sometimes my opening costume makes this a challenge, but I’ve yet to find one that’s thwarted me. My last two performances were unique in that my pre-show routine also included breastfeeding my newborn backstage. The two companies I had the privilege to work with made it possible for me to continue to pursue my dreams and share the experience with my baby. I will be eternally grateful to Lucky Penny and CCCT for those unforgettable and cherished memories.

MW: Most people will say you’ll catch me cracking jokes right up to the curtain. This is part ploy to hide my nerves and part enjoying the heck out of my job and the people I’m with. I am always nervous before any show, no matter if it’s opening night or closing night. I try to take a moment or two to stretch and get my mind centered. But when it comes down to it, frivolity is truly the best medicine for preparing myself to go on a nightly journey. After a show—that really depends on the show, but it all generally ends with a late-night snack and binging something on Netflix.

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

DD: The cast and crew of Cowgirls at Lucky Penny will forever mean the world to me. The relationships I built during that show continue to enrich my personal and stage life. The theatre became our home. Michael proposed to me there, Barry married us on stage and in real life, and Taylor, Dani, Staci, Dyan, and Heather are some of the most important confidants in my life.

MW: There are many individuals I truly cherish in the theater universe. And while I may not see some of them as often as I’d like right now, the cast/crew of Godspell from a 2014 production will always be in my heart. You’ll never see a group who sweated more, loved harder and supported one another through every trial and tribulation. I can never thank that group of humans enough for the joy and love they brought into my life.

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

MW: During a production of Into the Woods, Little Red missed her entrance for a scene with Jack. In this production, they used a live chicken for Jack to carry around in this scene. This turned into a hilarious 3-4 minute improvised scene between the actor playing Jack and this live chicken. When Little Red finally showed up, out of breath having clearly run from the dressing room, the audience gave Jack a rousing round of applause for his show-stopping improvisation skills.

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

DD: Performing in the wine country comes with its perks, and one of them is often a well-oiled audience. This can make for some wonderful laughs and energetic claps, as well as wine glasses shattering in front of you while singing a tender ballad, or a drunken audience member turning on the house lights while bickering with her partner across the theatre. Yes, that all happened during a single performance.

MW: It’s safe to assume that when you perform in the heart of wine country, most audience members will typically, and hopefully in a responsible fashion, enjoy an adult beverage before coming to the theater. But in some cases, “responsible” can be taken many ways. In one example, it wasn’t just one person but a party bus that decided to over-serve themselves before a show. This resulted in several hilarious moments of call and response, clumsily attempting to leave the theater in the middle of a heartbreaking ballad, and topping off the evening with asking a stranger to borrow their popcorn bucket to throw up in.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

DD/MW: We work as the sales and marketing team for a digital workspace consultancy in Davis, CA.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

MW: I’ve been a musician since I was old enough to hold an instrument. The guitar is my main muse but I can play just about anything if you give me twenty minutes to figure it out.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

DD:  Hmmm….OK…

    1. Chew with your mouth closed.
    2. Be nice.
    3. Chew with your mouth closed. (Yes, I repeated #1; Misophonia made me do it.)

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

DD: Attacked someone for chewing too loudly.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

MW: I am a total thrill-seeker. Who wants to go skydiving?

ASR: Favorite quotes from movies or stage plays?

DD: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

MW: “May the force be with you.” – Star Wars

-30-

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

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Getting Down Low on the Low Down with Clay David

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Hailing from the Creole/Cajun bayous of Louisiana, Clay David has enjoyed a wide-ranging professional career in theatre arts. Spanning London, Broadway, off-Broadway, regional theatre, national tours and educational theatre, his work has embraced advocacy, acting, directing, and design. His achievements in the theater have been recognized with five San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards. David has also earned an AMCO Kennedy Center National Award, the Victor Borge Legacy Award, a TITAN Award for Theatre Excellence (Theatre Bay Area), the Dean Goodman Choice Award for Best Director in San Francisco Bay, the Lee Hartgrave Fame Best Play Award, and the Bravo Award for Outstanding Innovation and Excellence in Arts.

Notable directing highlights: L’ours et la Lune, and Birth of the Son (Off-Broadway, Blue Heron, NYC), Wives as They Were/Maids as They Are (London Theatre Royal, St. Edmunds, Regency Rep), Romeo et Julieta, (Campamento Lomas Pinar, Cuernavaca, Mexico), York 24: The Capmaker’s Play, (Poculi Ludique Societas, Toronto), Trojan Women and Phedre, (Jerry Rojo Environmental Theatre, CT), Learned Ladies, and School for Scandal (Connecticut Repertory Theatre.)

His joy of collaboration is a true passion, directing premiere productions of Ernest Gaines, Luis Alfaro, Gloria Stingily, Savion Glover, Jared Choclat, Chuck Prophet, Felice Picano, Michael Golamco, and Kathyrn McCarty.

On stage, he has performed the title roles in Hamlet, Amadeus, and The Dresser (Connecticut Repertory Theatre), The Elephant Man and Uncle Vanya (Jerry Rojo Environmental Theatre, CT). Regional Shakespeare roles include: Don John in Much Ado About Nothing (Marin Shakespeare), and Troilus in Troilus and Cressida (Riverside Shakespeare, NY). In musical theatre, he has performed Georges in La Cage aux Folles, Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Preacher in Violet (Bay Area Musicals), Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar, and Tobias in Sweeney Todd (Connecticut Repertory Company).

(Editor’s note: His A Cajun Midsummer Night’s Dream at Novato Theater Company was unique, brilliant, amazing, and delightful.)

In educational theater, Clay David has served as professor and lecturer of theater at Loyola Marymount University, The University of Connecticut, Diablo Valley College, and was Chairman of Drama at Contra Costa College.

Clay David

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

CD: I sang in church. In the Southern Gothic Cajun South, High Mass was about as close as you could get to the papacy. I was on the debate team in ninth grade and won a few national titles in dramatic interpretation and poetry reading. I was cast as Cornelius Hackle in Hello Dolly in tenth grade. That opened the door and connected the dots.

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

CD: Performance: Sparger in Kennedy’s Children, Robert Patrick; directing: Welcome to Andromeda, Ronald Melville Whyte

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

CD: I feel like I have been doing this since the earth cooled, so well over a 150.

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

CD: My brother was severely disabled, and I always carry his spirit with me. I always say hello to him in the wings. I know he is an angel looking over me.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas?

CD: The Dutchman, Amiri Baraka; The Dresser, Ronald Harwood; The Blacks, Jean Genet; The Maids, Jean Genet; America Hurrah, Jean-Claude van Itallie; The Visit, Friedrich Dürrenmatt; Suddenly Last Summer, Tennessee Williams; Woysek, Georg Büchner.

ASR: Musicals?

CD: Sweeney Todd, Blood Brothers, Jerry Springer the Opera, Cabaret. Kinky Boots.

ASR: Comedies?

CD: The Bald Soprano, Eugene Ionesco; Tartuffe, Moliere; The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde; Private Lives, Noël Coward.

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

CD: Hamilton.

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

CD: The works of Enrico Cavacchioli, Rosso di San Secondo, Luigi Pirandello, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco. Theatre of the Grotesque and Theatre of the Absurd speak to our times, as we navigate the national discord, the bafflement, and bewilderment of the truth of our times.

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

CD: His plays have dimensions that are not explored or are diluted. Many times these works will be misdirected, or will politely just dance around the ideas of Hamlet asking his mother about the semen-stained sheets, or Ophelia singing pornographic songs when she is mad (who taught her the tunes?) or Richard ll’s historical and factual accuracy of his homosexuality.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

CD: Hamlet. I wish more companies would produce Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.

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

CD: I was a theatre professor for 20 years and loved teaching design. I adore making properties. But most importantly, I love working with the actors who use each prop I design, ensuring that it is perfect for them and helps the character that they are creating.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance?

CD: I drink a Red Bull, rock catatonically in my chair and suck on a cough drop.

ASR: How do you relax after?

CD: A large bowl of cereal and milk.

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

CD: Always think outside the box. Always take risks. The audience is the most important element of theatre.

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

CD: In that sacred moment when we come together on production we are all soulmates and family. I will always be present for my fellow actors and technicians on stage and backstage, a faithful steward. Whether it is cleaning the dressing rooms, fanning sweating dancers running offstage, picking up costumes after quick changes, or mending shoes in between scene changes, I feel that we are a family, a community with a mighty purpose, and I am there to serve.

…Theatre of the Absurd speaks to our times…

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

CD: Yes. Corporate. Director, Senior Resource Group.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

CD: Maintaining serenity during these troubling times.

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

CD: I am a designer and work closely with hospice and COVID patients, creating art that speaks to their needs and the needs of their families.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

CD: Our island is built on the doctrine of egalitarianism. Believe in reciprocity. Your mood should not dictate your manners.

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

CD: Title: Sugarcane Burning. It would be about my disabled brother, raised by a fragile mother and a queer little brother in the mystic land of the bayou, Cajun South Louisiana.

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

CD: Been there and done that, darling. They’d think, “Hey, y’all, what is it this time?”

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

CD: “J’ai Passé Devant Ta Porte,” the Cajun song we sang as children. “I Believe,” because I love and resonate with a good hymn. “Beautiful Dreamer,” because I played it on the organ and sang it for my mother and brother when times were hard.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

CD: Cufflinks.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

CD: “ Most people’s lives, what are they but trails of debris—each day more debris, more debris . . . long, long trails of debris, with nothing to clean it all up but death.”—Suddenly Last Summer

-30-

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

An Aisle Seat Review ART! Review: Take A Look at These Books! – by Cari Lynn Pace

For over 25 years, Marin’s Museum of Contemporary Art has been the nexus for exhibitions, artist workspace, and art classes for adults and more than 1,000 children. Prominently located at 500 Palm Drive in the Hamilton area of Novato, Marin MOCA encourages its 160 artist members to participate in 15 annual contemporary art exhibitions.

Marin MOCA main gallery.

This August, MOCA again presents its whimsical and thought-provoking exhibition: the 11th Annual Altered Book Exhibition and Silent Auction.

“What is an altered book?” you ask.

“Good question!” answers Nancy Rehkopf, MarinMOCA’s Executive Director. “It is a form of contemporary art, in a category called the book arts. It is a fast-growing category of great interest in the Bay Area.”

…“The pieces are innovative, clever, and fun…”

There are two kinds of altered books in this year’s display of 130 objects:

The first is an “altered book” which incorporates a component of an actual book: a book spine, a cover, inside pages, illustrations, words, and so on. The artist then combines one or more of these with paint, sculpture, metalwork, etc., to create a unique original artwork. These pieces become anything: clothing, mobiles, set pieces, wall candy, even furniture.

The second category is an “artist book,” where the artist does everything to create the artwork as a book: the artist might write the words, or do the illustrations, or create the paper, or even bind the book. These pieces are typically more personal, more reflective, and always supremely creative.

“A Fisherman’s Tale”
by Jay O’Neil

The art pieces are judged for awards by two local jurors: Donna Seager, owner of the Seager Grey Gallery in Mill Valley, and Mary Austin, co-founder of the San Francisco Center for the Book.

Seager notes, “The quality of the work has grown tremendously over the eleven years that MOCA has been presenting this competitive exhibition.” Austin adds, “The pieces are innovative, clever, and fun. There were cultural tones reflecting everything from the pandemic to whimsy and escapism.”

These expert jurors raved over the quality of the works, and gave awards as follows:

      • First Place: “Kintsugi Stitches” by Lisa Rodondi
      • Second Place: “Ocean of Tears” by Paulette Traverso
      • Third Place: “The Divide States of America” by Monica Lee

Honorable mentions: “A Fisherman’s Tale” by Jay O’Neil, “Kindling Spirit” by Jeff Downing, “Inner Thoughts 2020” by Regina Bode, “Upon Reflection” by Laura DeAnna, “A Bird in the Hand” by Gale Kiniry, “Flyaways and Dedications” by Deborah Sullivan, and “Portrait of Adele Bloch Bauer” by Linda Mueller.

Also, the jurors gave a Special Recognition Award to “Cindy’s Life” by Cindy Johnson, and the Glue Award went to “Stories of Place” by Julia Arndt.

The artists have donated most of MOCA’s 130 art objects toward this huge fundraising event. The works will be sold on August 21st when an online auction takes place at 7:00 PM. Go to www.marinmoca.org and click on “Get ready to bid” to open an account to bid at bidsquare.com. All pieces are displayed on the site, with details about size, media, and the artist.

“Ode to Orpheus”
by Esther Seigel

MOCA hopes to raise $50,000 from the Altered Book Exhibition to support its programs. They have a head start with a $10,000 challenge grant from Donald O. and Ronald R. Collins Fund — a loyal supporter for many years — and presenting sponsor Carson Wealth, a nationwide wealth investment management firm located in San Rafael.

Due to the museum’s closure to the general public, folks are welcome to see these pieces in person through August 29th by requesting a time and day they wish to visit at www.MarinMoca.org.

Believe me: it is a pleasure to linger over these amusing works of art without a crowd standing in the way.

-30-

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

 

 

An Aisle Seat Review ART! Review: Thinking “Outside the Box” is What These Artists Do — by Cari Lynn Pace

Give a child a hammer, and the child will find his or her expression in everything needs pounding.

Give an artist a plain wooden box, and the artist will find expression through its painting, deconstruction, carving, etching, repositioning, reconstruction, or through attachments.

The results turn out as wild, wacky, stunningly beautiful, inspiring, or just plain whimsical wall or display artworks.

Which begs the question, “Was that even a box, to begin with?”

“Love in the Time of Corona Virus” by Barry Willis

Check out what started as 150 identical shoe-size wood boxes at Gallery Route One in Pt. Reyes Station. Bay Area artists and local community members seized upon their vivid imaginations to create three-dimensional eye candy for the 21st Annual Box Show. This fundraiser (all the pieces are up for auction) has become a highly competitive Bay Area tradition and is on view now through September 12th.

…every year, the submissions increase in variety and technical skill…

Naturally, due to the pandemic, visitors must make an appointment to ensure social distancing, and everyone must wear a mask. Here is the good news: admission is free. Viewing times,  color photos of all entries, and docent comments are available at www.galleryrouteone.org.

“Japanese House”
by Dan Williams.

 

This sheer size of this show makes for an exhausting — yet undeniably entertaining — exhibit. To this reviewer, it seems like every year, the submissions increase in variety and technical skill, with many bursting forth in scope and content from a “shadow box” presentation. However, look in another direction, and other pieces are re-creations or re-imaginings of the box itself.

“Homage to Kelp”
by Jaine Kopp

Artists worked for two months to make a statement, tell a story, or both. If the artwork presents viewers with a challenge to spot the original pine box, find clues in the artist’s comments and color photos at https://secure.qgiv.com/event/theboxshow2020/.

Homebase for the Box Show is at Gallery Route One, a non-profit arts organization — and regional landmark since 1983 — adjacent to the entry for Marin County’s Point Reyes National Seashore in Point Reyes Station.

“Pine Box in Altered State”
by Will Thoms

Sales from the Box Show fund a variety of worthy outreach programs addressing art education, environmental, immigration, and social justice issues. Bidding for art pieces in the 2020 Box Show starts at $30 and culminates in the final live auction in the gallery’s parking lot (if allowed by regulations) on Saturday, September 12th, from 3 to 5 PM.

-30-

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

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: A Talk-Talk with the Versatile, Vivacious Maureen McVerry

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Maureen McVerry

Few performers have backgrounds as deep as Maureen McVerry’s. In 1993 she created Verry McVerry, her ever-evolving cabaret show, one she has performed for 25 years. In San Francisco, she has performed at Oasis, Feinstein’s, the New Conservatory Theatre, the Herbst Theatre, the Plush Room, the Venetian Room, the Gateway Theatre, and the Alcazar. Verry McVerry has also been performed at 88s in NYC and the Gardenia Room in LA and at other venues nationally. The show earned a 2012 SFBATCC nomination for Best Solo Show.

As a stage actress, McVerry has celebrated 39 years in theatre, like the legendary Jack Benny. At ACT she played Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (SFBATCC award), Kitty Packard in Dinner at Eight (SFBATCC award), the Gypsy in Scapin, Carrie in House of Mirth, Mrs. Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol and Sister Gabriella in The Pope and the Witch.

At ACT she also played Mrs. Schlemiel in Schlemiel the First and went on with the show to the ART in Cambridge and the Geffen Playhouse in LA. McVerry was featured as Kay in the SF Shakespeare Festival production of Oh Kay! (SFBATCC award) and in two long-running SF shows, Noises Off (SFBATCC and Dramalogue awards) and Curse of the Werewolf (SFBATCC award). At Marin Theatre Company she has appeared in Side by Side by Sondheim, You’re Going to Love Tomorrow (SFBATCC award), Born Yesterday (SFBATCC award), Room Service, and Me and My Girl.

McVerry has appeared in four different productions of Noises Off and would gladly do that show once or twice weekly to stay in shape. At 42nd St Moon she has appeared in several shows: Pardon My English (SFBATCC award), High Spirits, Wildcat, Very Warm for May, and Student Gypsy. She directed the successful 2011 revival of Oh Kay! and appeared at TheatreWorks as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest, Sylvia in Learned Ladies of Park Avenue, and Jack’s Mother in Into the Woods.

She played Clara in Sex at the Aurora Theatre, and at Center Rep performed in the hit musicals Bingo and Xanadu – her first Shelly nomination as Calliope. In 2014 at SF Playhouse, she reprised her role as Jack’s Mother in Into the Woods, which she plays 24/7 (her son’s name is Jack).

In October of 2014 Maureen’s husband of 32 years, Rick Alber (Dr. Rom on KGO radio) died unexpectedly from an unsuccessful heart operation. After a break, she slowly went back to work.

She did her new solo show Love Will Kick Your Ass at Oasis and at Feinstein’s. She made her drag king debut as Mr. Roper in Three’s Company Live at Oasis. She returned to Center Rep and played Georgette in It Shoulda Been You (Shelly nomination) and to 42nd St Moon, where she played Pauline in No No Nanette. At TheatreWorks she played Marge in The Bridges of Madison County, and at SF Playhouse played the Old Lady in Sunday in the Park With George.

In 2018 she played Linda Porter in the one-woman show, Love Linda at Cinnabar Theatre in Petaluma. She is the winner of seven SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards and two Dramalogue Awards. McVerry’s film credits include Nine Months, The Dead Pool, Big Business, True Believer, Howard the Duck, The Ox and the Eye, and Crackers. On TV: Full House and Divorce Court.

For the last 10 summers, McVerry has hosted the “very” successful Maureen McVerry’s Musical Theatre Camp for children and teens. The camp’s motto is “Where children learn to play on and off the stage.”

Since 2001, she has directed 27 student theatre productions at public schools on the Peninsula. Since Rick’s passing, she directs one middle school musical a year at North Star Academy in Redwood City.

__________________

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

MM: Halfway through my junior year of college, I was a little lost, so I dropped out and lived in Europe and the San Juan Islands and had a lot of fun. Not finishing what I had started bugged me though so in 1980 I returned to Cal to graduate (I recommend taking a few gap years to anyone else who might be lost).

Since I had completed almost all of my requirements, I knew I could really explore what the school offered. Amazingly, my father suggested that I “try drama” (What parent suggests that??). I enrolled in Drama 10, my first acting class, and was completely swept away. For the final five quarters at Cal, I appeared in several shows and completed my degree in history.

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

MM: The summer before I graduated from Cal, in 1980, I was in The Three Penny Opera at the Goodman Building on Geary with the incredible Jayne Dornacker as Jenny Diver. It ran for the whole summer! I even got paid a small stipend and was in heaven. In the ensemble, I played a beggar and a whore. My mother was thrilled. A few years later I played Polly Peachum at the Eureka Theatre with the late fabulous Sigrid Wurschmidt as Jenny Diver.

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

MM: Too many to count, but maybe 50+? In one show in the 80s, I performed in the parking garage of the Oakland Museum. Maureen McVerry, LLC—still going strong since 19-*cough cough.*

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

MM: That’s hilarious since I always tell people that by choosing theatre over film as my favorite pursuit, I took a “vow of poverty.”

However, I joined Equity and SAG back in the 80s and due to my longevity in the business, I can count on a pension from both of my unions. Fight for the union!

I should add that I married someone who was not in the business, which gave me the opportunity to have two children and own a house—really tough for a theatre actor.

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

MM: Happily, I have worked in films (feature and industrial), commercials, bad TV (Divorce Court), a sitcom filmed in front of a live audience (Full House), big expensive shows with fabulous costumes and tiny little shows where you wear your own clothes, weird experimental theatre, comedies, dramas, musicals and most recently, a “clown opera.”

Every few years I also put together a solo cabaret show and that is always a blast. Being in the same room as the audience is without a doubt my favorite way to work.

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

MM: My late husband Rick Alber, (who never appeared on stage) had the greatest impact on my life as an actor. In 1982 I met him and he was my opening night date for 32 wonderful years. Rick loved theatre and during the rehearsal and performance process, he was my special advisor and gave me tons of tips to polish my performances.

After he died in 2014, one of my biggest fears was actually that my performances would fall apart without his second set of eyes to notice things and ask questions. However, 32 years of his advice was deeply rooted so even without his presence, I’ve managed to get the job done.

Luckily I have also worked with directors who create great work.

ASR: With the ongoing coronavirus crisis, it will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How are you coping with the shutdown?

MM: I’m heartbroken. Before COVID, my 2020 was really filled with upcoming work. Pajama Game at 42nd St Moon was canceled almost immediately as it was set to go into rehearsal in late March. Following Pajama Game, I was supposed to have three weeks off and then start rehearsals at SF Playhouse for Follies by Stephen Sondheim, scheduled to run all summer.

Last fall and winter I thought that my summer 2020 would be filled with an exhausting eight-shows-a-week schedule. Hopefully, next spring 42nd St Moon will mount Pajama Game (I’m cast as Mabel) and if I’m lucky, SF Playhouse will mount Follies in 2021. In that show, I am cast as Phyllis. Fingers crossed.

…the audience almost vomited with laughter.

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

MM: What coming seasons? The theatre world is devastated as the floor just fell out. Everyone is just trying to figure out what is next. And not only what, but when? As a singer, I am especially crushed. It was devastating to read that singing with other people is the worst possible activity to pursue. Wow. My favorite thing to do is the last thing I should be doing— that hurts.

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

MM: Gosh, I wish I had a crystal ball for that question. My vision for everything is filled with hope because I believe hope is contagious. I hope and pray that someone smarter than me can create a vaccine soon and we can return to a world that is different, but hopefully closer to what we had than what we have now. During “normal” times, I am not really sure if anyone noticed their activities. We just called it “life.”

More than anything I miss sitting in the dark and laughing like a hyena and/or crying like a baby, surrounded by strangers having a similar experience. Who’da thunk that would be taken away? Back before this—especially with that guy in the White House—we were worried about a missile from North Korea or Russia invading some country but instead what we got was far worse. 150,000 Americans have died. That fact makes me weep.

Financial problems are already wreaking havoc on theatre companies everywhere and I worry that some won’t make it to the new post-COVID world. Trying to save money as people readjust, shows will probably be scaled back. Elaborate sets and costumes will be gone.

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected you?

MM: Luckily, as a member of an acting union, I am always paid.

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

MM: Favorite dramas: Oslo, Uncle Vanya, Angels in America, great productions of plays by Arthur Miller and Tennesee Williams. Center Rep did The Diary of Anne Frank last season and it was brilliant. I saw the filmed version of The Lehman Trilogy—amazing. Sunday in the Park with George makes me cry all the time. I have so many good plays filling my brain now I have to stop listing shows.

Comedies: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Noises Off is my favorite comedy from the 20th century. So far, in four different productions, I have played two of the three roles I am eligible for. Hopefully, another production is in my future.

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

MM: Anything by Dario Fo.

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

MM: Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw.

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

MM: It would have to be costumes. Twenty-some years ago I was recruited to re-mount the middle school musical at my children’s elementary school.

Twenty-two shows later I’m still at it and am still amazed at the joy I experience at costume time. As the director, I have to teach children and parents about how to create a show. I tell my parent volunteers that a costume should do half of the work for the actor. As soon as an actor enters the stage, the audience should have a good idea of who that character is.

Coming up with the perfect costume is so rewarding. Plus, if you do costumes, once the show opens, you can sit out front and watch.

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

MM: Dan Hiatt.

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

MM: In a musical, I love it when the music director runs a group warm-up. I never miss one. It gives the actors a chance to connect in their street clothes and also share some air together.

Being super superstitious, I have a personal pre-show ritual that I never miss as well.

Afterward, I go home to walk my beloved dogs. Being in a show can be quite exhausting so afterward, I try to take care of myself. To handle the stress of tech weeks and openings which made my eyeballs twitch, I started meditating again (I hadn’t for 25+ years), and ba-bam! my twitch went away.

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

MM: For the last twenty years I have taught my hundreds of student actors the three rules my college director Louise Mason taught me:

1. Be on time, ready to work at the start of rehearsal—not running in the door with a cup of coffee, but ready to work.

2. Do not talk when the director is talking.

3. When the director gives you a note, write it down, review the note before the next rehearsal. And never, I repeat, never make a director give you the same note twice.

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

MM: Three people in my life fit this category:

In 2005 I was in my first production of Into the Woods at TheatreWorks as Jack’s Mother. The actor playing the Baker was Jackson Davis. During rehearsals, we discovered that we were born on the exact same day (but luckily for me, he’s two hours older). In 2010, we commuted from the Peninsula to SF Playhouse together to do a groovy musical, Coraline. That’s when we truly bonded.

2. The “Arbiter of Taste and Fashion,” my friend Lawrence Helman, is a man about town, publicist, writer, and the most opinionated person I know. Also smart and funny with a razor-sharp memory. If you need to get the word out, call Lawrence.

3. In 1990 I met a director named Rick Simas. He found songs for me, directed my solo shows, and has made think and laugh for 30 years. Way back, after getting a Ph.D. at Cal, he left the Bay Area and taught at SD State for years but hopefully he will move back here soon. Great ideas, plus an encyclopedic memory on shows, songs, and theatre. He directed my solo shows in 2017 and 2019. They were quite entertaining thanks to Rick.

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

MM: There were a million screw-ups in runs of Noises Off but one of the best involved me and Dan Hiatt. His character was tugging a phone cord—the bit was the cord would come back without the mouthpiece. One night the cord returned like normal but zinged all over the stage and ended up caught in my hair. So I was actually attached to the phone offstage.

The audience almost vomited with laughter. I could have lost an eye but it was hilarious.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

MM: Once an actor missed an entrance in Noises Off and we stopped the show for the amount of time it took another cast member to run offstage and through the dressing rooms to get the actor off the pot and then into her costume to finally make her entrance and move on with the story.

Luckily I didn’t have to attempt bad improv since my character was “meditating.” Shockingly, my friends at the show didn’t notice the four-minute pause in act two!

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

MM: After a matinee of Two Gentlemen of Verona at San Jose Rep, the cast went back out for a post-show discussion. While asking a question, an audience member said the title of the “Scottish Play” out loud. We all reacted with horror since it is supposed to bring such bad luck upon the theatre.

That night during the evening show, an enormous sandbag fell thirty feet to the stage with a huge boom.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

MM: My career as a children’s theatre director could be considered my day job.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

MM: Politics, baseball, reading, gardening, tap dancing, boogie boarding, and making the world more fabulous.

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

MM: I belong to all the museums and try to see as much as possible. For a time I painted portraits of dogs and landscapes but my passion pooped out. Guess I just need to get my paints out.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

MM: Say yes. Be kind. No whining.

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

MM: Another Trump?

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

MM: Soup, a show set in a soup kitchen: the banter and dynamics of the volunteers with an opportunity to share the stories of guests so people learn more about the daily life of people experiencing homelessness. Comedy plus drama—a dramedy!

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

MM: Before this gosh darn pandemic I was looking forward to flying to DC and getting arrested with Jane Fonda and others to protest the lack of attention paid to climate change. It would be an honor to wear handcuffs for that. Wish me luck. In March, my son was evacuated from Lesotho after serving in the Peace Corps. He’s been with me but soon he plans to return to DC to live and work. Therefore soon I have another excuse to go to DC besides getting arrested.

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

MM: First I’d say, “If I Loved You,” from Carousel. Makes me cry

Then, “All Kinds Of Time, by Fountains of Wayne. It’s a perfect story song. Our family sang it at Rick’s memorial in 2014.

Finally, “Danny Boy.” It also makes me cry. And more importantly, it reminds me of my childhood and how much my parents loved that song.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

MM: Scarves.

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

MM: Terrifying thought to have anything that big around. Yikes! A cockapoo the size of a horse? I don’t want anything that big— not even horses!

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

MM: I go river rafting once a summer and that fulfills my need for thrills.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

MM: “Never give up. Never surrender.” —Galaxy Quest

-30-

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

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Write This Down — You Will Pay Big Money One Day to See a Play Directed by M. Graham Smith

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

M. Graham Smith is a San Francisco-based Director, Educator, and Producer. He is an O’Neill/NNPN National Directing Fellow, an Oregon Shakespeare Festival FAIR Fellow, and a proud Resident Artist at SF’s Crowded Fire.

He grew up outside of New York City and has been based in San Francisco for the last fourteen years. He’s directed in New York City, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Portland Oregon, Washington DC, and venues in San Francisco.

Graham directed the West Coast Premiere of JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA in SF and TRUFFALDINO SAYS NO at Shotgun Players, winning Best Director for the Bay Area Critics Circle.  

Recent credits include the World Premiere of Obie winner Christopher Chen’s HOME INVASION in SF, DEAL WITH THE DRAGON at ACT’s Costume Shop & Edinburgh Fringe & NCTC, Mia Chung’s YOU FOR ME FOR YOU at Crowded Fire, and James Ijames’ WHITE at Shotgun.

His two upcoming projects include the world premiere of BONE ON BONE at NJ Rep, and the first workshop production of HOMOSEXUAL CONDUCT at Occidental College in LA, a play he co-created with playwright Sarah Kozinn about the Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court decision.

He spent five years as Producer of Aurora Theater’s new play development program and festival The Global Age Project. He teaches at A.C.T.’s actor-training programs, Berkeley Rep School of Theatre and at Barcelona’s premiere Meisner Technique program in Spain.

You can visit him online at www.MGrahamSmith.com

M Graham Smith

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

GS: In general I believe that theater is a space where weirdness and every variety of behavior should be allowed without judgment. I hate the weirdness of audience members shushing other audience members for laughing and responding to the play.

That feels like a very weird behavior to me. After all, we came to the space to meet the play with our whole selves.

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

GS: There have been a lot of folks who’ve helped me developed my professional career, almost all of them my peers, like the extraordinary Mina Morita at Crowded Fire, who is a trusted advisor. Like Marissa Wolf, now the AD at Portland Center Stage. The Actor/Creator Kevin Rolston whom I’ve spent several years developing work with.

It’s funny that I have been unsuccessful for most of my career in finding a mentor.

Tommy Kail, the director of Hamilton, whom I went to college with, jokes with me about this phenomenon: “Are you my mentor, are you my mentor?” – Perhaps because I’m inherently not a joiner, I’ve never enjoyed that kind of relationship. 

To indicate that I was too “cool”… I wore sunglasses. It was a revelation...

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

GS:  I happened to be on stage at the time, and an actor was supposed to enter the scene through the door of the set, but the door was stuck, so the actor had to open a window and enter the scene that way, which was bizarre and hilarious.

It was an early lesson for me about playing the moment!

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

GS: Let me think…

      1. The best ideas don’t have to be yours; encourage a space where everyone feels excited to contribute.
      2. Art is about experimentation, so do things you don’t know what the outcome will be.
      3. Don’t attempt something that doesn’t scare you a little bit. Otherwise, you’re not stretching yourself.

ASR: What would be the worst “Buy One,  Get One Free” sale of all time?

 GS: A suicide kit.

ASR:  You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make The Rules. What are the first three rules you put into place?

GS: Hmmm…. ok here goes…

      1. No shoes!
      2. Good food ONLY!
      3. Happy hour is at 5 pm every day of the year!

ASR: How do you relax before a performance?

GS: A great meal with good friends.

ASR: You have been given the opportunity to create the 30-minute TV show of your own design. What is it called and what’s the premise?

GS: I really like shows about food.

And dogs.

So maybe something about food and dogs.

But not dogfood.

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

GS: Somewhere between civil disobedience and jaywalking. I’m a snooze.

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

GS:  It’s hard to narrow it down to one person. I think we are blessed in the Bay Area with a strong community that really looks out for each other.

I can always call Dawn Monique Williams to have a long serious talk about a play we’ve just seen. Or Chris Herold about educational pedagogy. Or Lisa Marie Rollins who has always been there for me in ways big and small. Ely Sonny Orquiza has been such an incredible co-pilot with me on some of my favorite projects.

We have a strong community here that I’m so grateful to call home.

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

GS:  The People Have The Power sung by Patti Smith. Because we do. Sam Cooke, the entire album of Night Beat because it’s just the best music ever made. The Book of Love by the Magnetic Fields – we played it at our wedding. 

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

GS:  I love a really good pair of shoes.

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

GS:  To Kill a Mockingbird. Maybe more than 20 years.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, name an actor on a Bay Area stage who you think is doing amazing work?

GS: Jomar Tagatac. Every one of his performances is a revelation. He’s a shapeshifter with a dedication to being present and making the moment live.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

GS:  I love Winter’s Tale. The first half is like Othello, the second half is like As You Like It. It’s a story of cruelty and healing, and the problems you need to solve in directing it are very exciting to think about.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing one of the following technical theater roles: Light, Props or Costumes which would it be and why?

GS:  Light. I love telling stories with light. The transformation that you can create with that department is so rich. I spent a long time when I was younger doing light design and light board op. I love the technical attention to detail.

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

GS:  A snail!

ASR: Shark diving, bungee jumping, or skydiving?

GS:  Bungee all the way!

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

GS: At Church, we did this church musical called It’s Cool in the Furnace about King Nebuchadnezzar attempting to murder political enemies in a furnace. You know, really great children’s musical theater material.

I played Daniel, who performs some sort of miracle. To indicate that I was too “cool” for the furnace, I wore sunglasses.

It was a revelation.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

GS: Two lines. Same movie…

Actor 1: “Inconceivable!”

Actor 2: “You keep using that word, but I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The Princess Bride

-30-

Kris Neely

Kris Neely launched Aisle Seat Review in 2015. He is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of ASR. Mr. Neely is an SFBATCC Best Director Award Winner (2013). He is also the founder and publisher of Cresting Wave Publishing, LLC at www.gocwpub.com

 

 

ASR Not So Random Question Time — Going Downtown Dramaturgy with Cal Shakes’ Amazing Phillipa Kelly

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

When describing the role of a dramaturg, Dr. Philippa Kelly says this: “Whatever can make a production deeper and richer and more ambiguous and interpretively challenging – that is the goal of my activities as a dramaturg.”

Since encountering Shakespeare at age fourteen, she’s become the first woman in history to prepare a public edition of King Lear and has published eleven books, including three on King Lear, one of the most recent being The King and I, which is a meditation on dispossession through the twin lenses of King Lear and Australian culture. In April 2020, with Amrita Ramanan as Associate Editor, Kelly published Diversity, Inclusion, and Representation in Contemporary Dramaturgy: Case Studies from the Field (Routledge).

She’s also educated students and audiences about Shakespeare in schools, prisons, and at the California Shakespeare Theater. As an Australian-American she has a unique perspective on how identity, social justice, and dramaturgy can be woven together throughout the creative process of theatre-making.

Philippa Kelly

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

PK: I came to America as a Fulbright Scholar at UC Berkeley. Then I came back as a Rockefeller Scholar some years later. So I had trained to be, and was practicing as, a scholar/teacher.

Discovering dramaturgy made it all make sense – I would never go back to academe full-time. Dramaturgy makes knowledge live. Being Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater has been the greatest professional joy of my life.

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

PK: Quite a lot: Cal Shakes, of course; and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; the Play On festival; the Aurora; Word for Word; the Berkeley Repertory Theater; A UC production of Midsummer, and another UC production, totally student-led, in which the theme was “Glitter Macbeth” in honor of the director’s fascination with Mariah Carey. The student playing Macbeth was an athlete who had never acted before, and I taught him to walk like a soldier by putting sandbags on his feet.

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

PK: The California Shakespeare Theater of course has Shakespeare as its core, with Shakespeare’s incredible capacity to lay bare, and make us stare into the heart of human paradox. But under Jon Moscone’s vision, we began doing two Shakespeares and two other classics (Shaw, Wilde, Chekhov) per season; and under the leadership of Eric Ting, the company has moved more into New Classics – with the idea that while Shakespeare is a touchstone, the two (Shakespeare and the creation of New Works) can feed each other.

I’d say there is not a single artist I’ve met from whom I didn’t learn something, even if I didn’t see it at the time.

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

PK: The greatest influence in my professional life has really been Professor Stephen Greenblatt. Way before I became a dramaturg, it was his work that taught me to think dramaturgically – how we live, with all of our paradox, in this human world. Another great influence has been Curt Tofteland of Shakespeare Behind Bars – the way in which Curt brings the words of Shakespeare to reach places for which there has been so much hurt but may have been little language.

And one of my dearest inspirations is set designer Annie Smart. She has the eye of a designer and the mind of a dramaturg. When I prepare my actor packets (I write a fresh, 20-page actor packet for every show), I send them to Annie, and she grades the draft from A+ to B-!!! I’ve also been inspired by Eric Ting (we have already adapted four plays together into one – that takes some trust!) and Joel Sass, an amazingly original director, who is so thorough that there is almost nothing for me to do!

There are so many artists who have inspired me – actress/director Joy Carlin (her famous comment: “Don’t worry darling – it’s only theater”), playwright Marcus Gardley, director Ian Belknap, musician/performer/writer Rinde Eckert, writer/actress Ellen McLaughlan, dramaturg Lue Douthit (she says “Theater is a journey from emotion to emotion.”).

I’d say there is not a single artist I’ve met from whom I didn’t learn something, even if I didn’t see it at the time. And theater historian Liz Schafer – we have known and worked together on and off for 20 years. If you are looking for a fascinating book of interviews with women directing Shakespeare, look for her 1997 book, MsDirecting Shakespeare.

I think my dearest, deepest, most combative artistic relationship is with my husband Paul Dresher. He is a composer, presenter, and producer. Sometimes in response to his critiques I want to throw him down the toilet – but I know that when I cool down I’ll be so grateful for the light he shines into my work with his brilliant mind.

ASR: Have the coronavirus crisis and ongoing social upheaval affected your company and your work?

PK: The virus has decimated theaters everywhere. Cal Shakes has been doing a huge amount of work with Black Lives Matter and anti-racist activism. As for myself, every week I record a 12-minute video in a series we call “Run the Canon.” (https://calshakes.org/cal-shakes-online/run-the-canon/)

By the end of the year, we will have recorded videos for every play in Shakespeare’s canon. And this coming Tuesday (July 28th) I’m interviewing supreme Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World, The Swerve, and Tyrant. This will be followed by a ten-week course on five Shakespeare plays, which I’ll run every week. (https://calshakes.org/learn/shakespeare-in-depth-with-philippa-kelly/)

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

PK: Whenever I sit down with a box of tissues to watch The Sound of Music, my husband Paul says, “Oh, OK. I’ll sit upstairs and start filling out the divorce papers.”

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most under-rated play? Why?

PK: I think The Comedy of Errors. I was about to work on it with the wonderful director Jessica Holt for Cal Shakes this season when Covid struck. It’s under-rated because people often see it as just a light comedy, but it is also a deep meditation on the mysteries of identity. Who are we? There’s so little time to find out. When we look at, or listen to, another person, we very often see what is inside our own heads rather than what is there in front of us. Look at how people saw Hilary Clinton – or didn’t see her. And so we got stuck with the orange nightmare. Misrecognition, mis-seeing, misunderstanding—these are key to the lightness and darkness of The Comedy of Errors.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

PK: Midsummer – I’ve dramaturged it four times.

ASR: Who do you think is the most amazing Bay Area actor?

PK: Honestly there are so many. I revere them. But if I had to name one who did something I’ve never seen before, it would be Patty Gallagher. We had had Marcia Mason cast as Winnie in our 2009 production of Beckett’s Happy Days. Marcia left after ten days, Patty came in, and she played the most beautiful Winnie I could ever imagine. She had only ten days to prepare, and that role comprises almost the whole play, and it is full of non-sequiturs. Still today when I think of Patty’s Winnie, tears come to my eyes. I love that play so much. Her performance was pitch-perfect.

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

PK: Hmm. Quite a question…

1: Ask “Why are we performing this play, at this time, for this audience, in this place?” You need to feel the pulse of the present moment and be incredibly specific in that feeling.

2: Be prepared to draw from a deep well of knowledge, but do not expect to share, or volunteer, the whole of that well unless you want the director to hit you over the head with a chair. [Editor’s Note: Oh, sooo very true! — KN]

3: Don’t feel that you have to know everything – you can look it up. It’s the thirst for knowledge that makes a great dramaturg.

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

PK: I saw a Romeo and Juliet at OSF where Romeo sent the knife flying and poor Juliet had to stab herself without it.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

PK: I am a writer and an educator. I run a community Shakespeare group; I run a theater appreciation group (you can contact me about either class –they run in separate terms all year long – on philippakellydresher@gmail.com); and I am proud to be Chair and Professor of English at the California Jazz Conservatory under the directorship of Susan Muscarella.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

PK: I love to swim, read, walk my chihuahuas, and to sit in the Australian morning sun with my family or friends, drinking “flat whites.”

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

PK: I follow music, of course – The Paul Dresher Ensemble! John Adams.

I love photographer Richard Misrach’s work.

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

PK: A colonoscopy prep kit.

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

PK: An amoeba.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

PK: My beloved brother died rock climbing, so I’m not too much into risky sports. But I do love looking at the works of friends of mine who are photographers (Richard Misrach, Debbie O’Grady), painters (Naomie Kremer), authors (Richard Zimler), musicians (Paul Dresher, John Adams) and being awed in the presence of this fact: that when artists make their work, the act is as risk-taking as that of any explorer who has forged ahead even though they might fall off the edge of the world.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

PK: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” – NOT!!! Love means being ABLE to say you’re sorry!

-30-

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

 

ASR Not-So-Random Question Time: Could He Get Even Busier? Actor/Director Extraordinaire Aldo Billingslea

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Aldo Billingslea is the Father William J. Rewak S. J., Professor of Theatre Arts at Santa Clara University. A member of Actors Equity Association and the Screen Actors Guild, Billingslea has appeared in numerous theatrical productions in the Bay Area and across the country.

With Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company he gave an astounding powerful performance in Dry Powder, a production that won near-unanimous critical acclaim.

Billingslea resides in Santa Clara with Renee Billingslea, his visual-artist wife who also teaches at Santa Clara University, and Trinity, their daughter, who is captain of the Santa Clara Bronco rowing team.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

AB: I thought it would help me get kissed by women. I was in 7th grade.

I did not get my first stage kiss until I was a sophomore in college. And then it was on the cheek.

ASR: How many theaters have you been involved with?

AB: Not including the theaters where I have acted, I’m currently on the board of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and the Marin Theatre Company. I’m an associate producer and ambassador for PlayGround. I’ve served on the board of Renegade Theatre and Playground and on the advisory board for Gritty City Youth Repertory Theatre. I have participated in the Artistic Director searches for Marin Theatre Company, the Aurora Theatre, and TheatreWorks. I’m over-involved.

ASR: What was your first paying theatrical gig?

AB: It was the Jones and Schmidt musical Celebration! I played Potemkin. It was summer of 1984 in a converted barn theater in the hill country of Texas, at a place called Mo Ranch.

ASR: Who has had the biggest influence on your career?

AB: There are a ton of people who contributed to the development of my professional career! Apart from my wife Renee, one of the most significant would be my college professor Dr. Barbara Means Fraser. She directed me a few times in college, encouraged me to audition for graduate school, and after I graduated with those degrees, encouraged me to go to Ashland. She then helped me work my way to Santa Clara University where I’ve been teaching for the last 22 years.

……theatrical Zoom work is new and creative!

ASR: How has the coronavirus shutdown affected you?

AB: I may actually be busier since the shutdown. Not commuting to theaters means the opportunity to work with more of them. Our Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project was created in collaboration with PlayGround, the Lorraine Hansberry, and Planet Earth Arts, and forty other Bay Area theatres, plus twenty more theatres across the country to read Vincent Terrell Durham’s Polar Bears, Black Boys, and the Prairie Fringed Orchid.

It was thrilling and led us to launch the Black Theater fundraiser, an initiative to fund black theaters around the country. They are hurting partly because of COVID-19 and because black theater isn’t properly funded. 

COVID-19 canceled several gigs for me, the most painful of which was Lauren Gunderson’s Book of Will at TheatreWorks, which would’ve allowed me to appear in the last play directed by Robert Kelley as artistic director and be on the stage again with Jim Carpenter, Jennifer Le Blanc, Francis Jue, Rebecca Dines, Mark Anderson Phillips, Jackson Davis and a host of other fabulous actors.

Jennifer Le Blanc and I were supposed to do another Othello at Pacific Repertory Theatre—we had done it at Marin Shakespeare in 2004—so after 16 years later I should be better. Jennifer and I were also supposed to do Death and the Maiden together, also at Pacific Rep. However, had I been engaged in those productions, I wouldn’t have been able to participate in the great collaboration for Polar Bears, Black Boys, and the Prairie Fringed Orchid, or participated in the black theater fund. So the Lord does work in mysterious ways!

ASR: What’s the worst aspect of the shutdown for you?

AB: Losing the immediacy of being in a theater, and relating to human beings without the separation of a screen. It is invaluable and sorely missed! However, this theatrical Zoom work is new and creative. It’s going to send us into a new realm and a new burst of exploration as people try to find ways to harvest the potential.

ASR: What are some of your favorite plays?

AB: Othello and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Give me August Wilson and William Shakespeare and I’d be good for a while. Also, I love Marcus Gardley’s Black Odyssey and Sarah Burgess’ Dry Powder, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, and Lauren Gunderson’s Book of Will and I am so very very taken by Polar Bears, Black Boys, and the Prairie Fringed Orchid that I’m directing it at Santa Clara University this fall!

ASR: A favorite quote?

AB: “I believe in the American theatre. I believe in its power to inform about the human condition, and its power to heal.” – August Wilson

-30-

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

 

ASR Not-So-Random Question Time: The Stunningly Talented, The Stunningly Beautiful Amy Miller of Transcendence Theatre Co!

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

We caught up with Amy Miller, Artistic Director of the Transcendence Theatre Company (TTC) with headquarters in Sonoma. TTC is a close-knit extended family of dozens of song-and-dance stars invited from around the U.S.

Every summer (except this year) these stage and screen talents perform outdoor among the stone ruins of Jack London State Historic Park. When the nights cool down in autumn, TTC moves inside to North Bay stages performing energetic scenes from Broadway musicals.

USA Today readers discovered TTC years ago when TTC was voted #2 in the “Best Outdoor Concert Venues.”

 

Amy Miller

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

AM: I started dancing at age five and never stopped. As a tot, I looked up to the older dancers. When they shifted to the theatre in high school, it inspired me to join the theatre as well.

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

AM: I was The Jester in Once Upon A Mattress at McAuley High in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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

AM: Oh wow! At least 10 regional theatres as well as Broadway and national tours, not counting television and film.

…Our team works hard and believes “The obstacle is the way.”

ASR: When was your present company formed?

AM: In 2009 six of us gathered in Punta Banda, Mexico for a unique and incredible theatrical experiment. Brad Surosky, Stephan Stubbins, Randi Kaye, Robert Petrarca, Leah Sprecher, and I joined with other performers to assess challenges facing the health and wellness of the theatre community. “Project Knowledge” researched a holistic approach.

Later we learned California was planning to close Jack London State Historic Park in budget-cutting. We put on a fundraiser there in 2011 which began the Transcendence model of outdoor shows under the stars. We hoped to do one performance of our favorite Broadway numbers and sell fifty tickets to our friends. Imagine our surprise when we filled the place! Our first season of multiple summer shows began the next year. Since then we’ve raised over $515,000 to keep the park open and deliver arts education to schools.

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

AM: Absolutely, I always knew this would serve the world and be very important.

ASR: Does TTC have a special focus?

AM: Transcendence has a focus on musical theatre, inspiring songs, and powerful dance. Our intention is to uplift and empower our audiences to live the best life ever. We hope that when you enjoy a Transcendence performance, you’ll be inspired to spread love and joy well after leaving the theatre. Transcendence has a mission to share the arts as a service to everyone.

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

AM: Planning for the future is always one step at a time. At this moment we are dedicated to our staff, artists, and community more than ever. Our team works hard and believes “The obstacle is the way.”

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

AM: In addition to our well-loved summer season outdoors, we’re building a network online to share education and performances with the world. We continue to develop new works and encourage artists to grow and excel.

ASR: Assembly Bill 5 presently requires most workers be paid California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. How has AB5 affected your theater company?

AM: We are complying with AB5 and have turned all of our people into employees. It definitely has added more to our expenses which is difficult during this unprecedented time.

ASR: Life in the theater: What are some of your favorite shows?

AM: A Chorus Line, 42nd Street, Rodgers and Hammerstein Classics, and Chicago, of course. I love musicals!

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

AM: The Secret Garden.

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

AM: Tick, Tick, Boom.

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

AM: Stage Management. Stage managers are absolute heroes. What an incredible task they have each day and night!

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

AM: I meditate, stretch, breathe, and I have a secret ritual with all the ladies in the dressing room which empowers us to give our best every night!

After a performance, like many artists, I relax by spending time with friends and family.

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

AM:

1. Take care of yourself and your health and wellness.

2. Have a clear vision.

3. Be a strong leader with kind and compassionate communication.

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

AM: Lily Tomlin forgot her monologue in her one-woman show on Broadway, The Search for Signs of The Intelligent Life in the Universe. She told everyone she had to leave the stage and returned after a drink of water.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

AM: At The Barn Theatre in Michigan, I was dancing the tango in Evita with my lifelong friend and Transcendence Artistic Associate, Tony Gonzalez. We were to do a major lift at the climax of the number and he dropped me! We ran offstage both mortified! No grudges held here, as Tony choreographs and directs for TTC today.

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

AM: An audience member once ran backstage during the show. It happened during the musical number “The Time Warp” which made it even weirder!

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

AM: Transcendence is my day job, and I am beyond grateful to enjoy it as much as I do. My interests are definitely family and friends, my son and husband. I also like photography, as well as watching the sky at sunrise and sunset.

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

AM: The Broadway Artist Wine Chat, a weekly Q & A with all artists in the industry sharing stories and life connections with each other and the audience. Think James Lipton’s Inside the Actors Studio but at a winery!

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking?

AM: I have been surfing and I even stood up one time!

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

AM: “A vision’s just a vision if it’s only in your head if no one gets to see it, it’s as good as dead, it has to come to life…” from Sondheim’s Sunday In the Park with George.

-30-

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

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: The Terrifically Talented, Totally Mind-Blowing David Templeton

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

David Templeton is a Bay Area arts journalist and playwright best known locally for his work with the Petaluma Argus-Courier, and for 16 years as a writer and theater critic for the North Bay Bohemian. He also contributes to Strings magazine and others.

As a playwright, he’s won awards for his solo show Wretch Like Me, which has had runs at the San Francisco Fringe Festival and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in Scotland. His other plays include Pinky, Polar Bears, Drumming with Anubis, and Mary Shelley’s Body – the latter adapted from David’s novella of the same name, published in the 2016 anthology Eternal Frankenstein.

His supernatural short story, Questions and Answers, appears in the recent anthology Tales From a Talking Board. His next play is the science-fiction mystery Galatea, which will make its world premiere in 2021 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park.

David Templeton

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

DT: In second grade, in Southern California, I wrote a short play called Grumpy, which was Snow White and the 7 Dwarves told from the perspective of the crankiest dwarf.

I asked my teacher if I could stage it, and we made some attempts at making that happen, but I have no memory of actually performing it, beyond my working hard to learn my lines for weeks. It’s weird because I don’t think I’d previously seen a theater production of any kind beyond my Episcopal church’s annual nativity pageant, in which I appeared as the one-and-only black sheep in the flock of white-costumed kindergarten sheep.

But for some reason, I had that idea for a play, and from Grumpy on, I knew I wanted a life in the theater. I did tons of plays in school, wrote and staged plays and puppet shows at the local library, and then started my own company in high school. It was originally a puppet theater, but we eventually added live action plays, which of course, I wrote and directed.

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

DT: That’s a hard one. A lot of those early plays I wrote and directed were done on a pass-the-hat basis but were enough to pay my bills for a year or so after I graduated from high school. If you mean, what was the first play I appeared in for a company that was not: A. a school, B. my own company or C. a troupe performing at the Renaissance Faire (where I did do some performing while operating game booths in the early 1980s), I suppose it would have to be Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) for Santa Rosa Players.

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

DT: Another hard one. By the time I did that show with the Santa Rosa Players, I’d long ago moved to Northern California, started working for newspapers on the swing shift, and started a family.

During all that time, I pretty much thought I’d given up on my earlier theatrical ambitions. Instead, I wrote poems and short stories, the occasional bad screenplay, and of course the journalistic writing I was doing more and more of.

In fact, I got the part in Complete Works of William Shakespeare “because” of journalism. I was writing for the North Bay Bohemian (not yet doing theater criticism), and I was assigned a story on local community theater. The idea my editor and I came up with was for me to go to an audition “undercover” as someone auditioning, and then write about all the wacky folks spending their evenings doing local shows.

To my surprise, I was offered one of the three roles, at which point I had to admit that I had not actually been auditioning, but was writing a newspaper story.

As I remember it, the director Carl Hamilton said, “Write what you want, we want you in this show.” I got a scathing review from the Press Democrat but was suddenly being offered parts again.

After a few shows with the Players, I segued back into writing my own plays, beginning with my one-man-show Wretch Like Me, which I wrote with the intention of performing it at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I ended up performing it nearly a hundred times including runs all over the North Bay. I went on to write several more plays as you’ve already noted — thank you.

On occasion, over the years, I’ve continued to be occasionally cast in other shows, including playing Judas in Godspell and the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (both with Santa Rosa Players), The Large and Terrible Frog in A Year With Frog and Toad (6th Street Playhouse), Rick Masters in Circus Acts (Actors’ Basement), Bill Sikes in Oliver (Lucky Penny Productions) and Commander Harbison in South Pacific (Spreckels Theatre Company).

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

DT: This one’s easy. Though I would arguably never have stepped back into writing plays were it not for Dan Zastrow and Julia Lander, two friends who “strongly” encouraged me to stop “talking” about writing my one-man show and actually write and perform the thing – and went on to produce the first several productions of it (originally directed by David Yen) – it’s been Sheri Lee Miller who has had the largest impact on me professionally – as a playwright, certainly.

She encouraged me to write my follow-up, Pinky, which she directed in its world premiere and also in its encore production. Since then, she’s been a stalwart friend, a constant supporter, champion, and exemplar of generosity, an artistically vibrant source of inspiration, a tireless feedback giver and promoter, and a frequent and ever-valuable collaborator. Every minute spent on a stage with Sheri is a directorial master class. She’s the best.

…I’ve seen two or three bad productions of ‘Macbeth’ for every good one.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. What are you doing till then?

DT: I’ve been mostly reading other people’s works, memorizing huge chunks of text just to keep my memorization skills intact. Having Galatea be canceled less than a week before its opening was hard because it was really looking good. It’s a script I’m incredibly proud of, and not getting to share it with the world was hard, but since Spreckels is still planning on producing the play once it is possible to do so, I’ve got that to look forward to.

That said, it kind of took the wind out of my sails, so I haven’t had much desire to write anything new just yet. But in the meanwhile, I’ve learned that a theater school in New York will be doing a Zoom-based production of my play Drumming with Anubis in July, and there’s talk of a production, either live or streaming, of my one-person-show Polar Bears this winter in Idaho.

And I “do” have some ideas for new plays (I’m suddenly having crazy new ideas all the time), and I imagine I will get the bug to start writing one of them sometime fairly soon.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas?

DT: Gem of the Ocean, by August Wilson (I’ve seen three productions, and would love to see more). Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel because the story, the language and the poetry of the plotting are breathtaking. The Jungle, by Joe Murphy and Joe Robinson, who collected stories from a real refugee camp in France, and spun them into an interactive, immersive experience that entirely rearranged the way I think about theater.

ASR: Musicals?

DT: Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, not normally performed “as” a stage production (usually as an orchestra piece with choruses), but I saw it done as a theatrical piece once, and I’ve never gotten over it. Come From Away, because it’s so uplifting and delightful and deeply moving. Fiddler on the Roof, because every song is gorgeous and memorable and because it’s about surviving prejudice and bigotry and hate.

ASR: Comedies?

DT: On the Razzle, by Tom Stoppard, The Importance of Being Ernest by Oscar Wilde and Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley. These are plays that are weird, funny, and deeply insightful, and are consistently effective, every time I see them or reread them.

ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays?

DT: I really dislike Bye Bye Birdie, a play that – despite introducing a rare instance of interracial love in which no one ends up dead at the end – is so of its time that it just doesn’t work anymore. In fact, it’s kind of embarrassing.

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

DT:  Bye Bye Birdie, obviously. Can we make it 30 years?

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play?

DT: Got to be Cymbeline.

ASR: Why?

DT: People just don’t seem to understand it, but to me, it’s actually a flat-out blast of a play, with a little of everything in it. It’s got a great female central character (Cymbeline, the king, is barely a presence in it; this show is “all” about Imogen), some fantastic plotting, huge twists and turns and really dark comedy, a fantastically icky villain (several of them actually), an evil stepmother, a headless body, and a fantastic battle with huge emotional impact for everyone involved. I’d love to direct it sometime. I have ideas.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

DT: As opposed to “most performed?” Those would obviously be A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, but they are solidly entertaining plays and good introductions to the Shakespeare canon.

I’d say the most “over-performed” is Macbeth, because it’s actually really hard to pull off, and yet people can’t resist it because it’s spooky and fun and bloody and theater producers think it’s a good one for Halloween. But I’ve seen two or three bad productions of Macbeth for every good one.

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

DT: Props. I love making props. It’s like arts-and-crafts but with a bit of costuming and magic involved. When I was in Oliver! I ended up taking the broom-handle I was given as Bill Sikes’ murder stick, and I beat it up and stained it and turned it into a really scary-looking billy club. I still have it, actually.

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

DT: Well, I’ve already talked about Sheri Lee Miller as a director, but I do believe it’s a shame she hasn’t been on stage since she played Mary Shelley in Mary Shelley’s Body, a role I really hope she picks up again sometime in the near future.

She’s been awesome in everything I’ve see her in, but beyond that, I’d say that, Bay Area-wide, my other favorites include Margo Hall (exacting and meticulous performer, with a blinding presence and one of the most dazzling stage smiles of all time) and James Carpenter (a chameleon in every way, best death scene I’ve ever witnessed, and not a bad smile himself).

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance?

DT: It depends. There was a time I went through a list of about 20 stretches and vocal things, made a ceremony of transforming into my costume/character, but after Edinburgh, when I literally had ten minutes or less to get into costume and get ready for places, I learned to do all of that in a few intense minutes.

That said, when I’m doing a normal non-fringe solo show, where I’ll be reciting 75 minutes of text but have plenty of time in the theater beforehand, it really takes the fear-factor down if I run every word of the show, with blocking (sped up, or course), an hour or two before the house opens.

ASR: How do you relax after?

DT: I really enjoy talking with people in the lobby after a show. It’s a nice transition back to the world.

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

DT: Well, as a playwright mentor, I’d hope anyone I instructed or coached would take away that

1. Failure, while awful to experience, is as important a teacher as is success, and maybe more so, if you are up to staying in the discomfort space long enough to hear the lessons failure has to teach.

2. To get a good idea for a play, or a solution to a problem encountered in writing that play, you generally have to generate hundreds of less good ideas, so we should never fall too much in love with our first thoughts. Use the brainstorming to get a lot of material and then choose the one you think is the juiciest.

3. Listen to actors. You don’t have to take every suggestion they throw at you, but you should definitely avoid “never” listening to them. After several weeks of stepping into a character, they often get to know that person at least as well as you do, and sometimes more so.

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

DT: I once watched a production of Camelot, in which a sword escaped one of the knights of the round table, flew across the stage toward the audience, launched into the air and finally landed in the one unoccupied seat in the front row. It was, under the circumstances, hilarious, precisely because it was very nearly … not.

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

DT: I don’t know how weird this is, but during one performance of my play Pinky, in which I performed along with Liz Jahren, there was a climactic kiss scene, in which my character takes an excruciating amount of time “getting” that Pinky wants him to kiss her.

At one point, a woman in the back row suddenly yelled, “Just KISS HER … FOOL!” It was hard completing the kiss while both Liz and I were trying not to laugh, and even harder when Pinky, having been kissed by my character, thinking about whether she liked it or not, suddenly grabs him and kisses him back, really energetically.

At that point, another person in the audience, probably loosened up by the first patron’s exclamation, shouted, quite loudly, “Now THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about!!!”

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

DT: Fortunately, yes. Currently, I’m the Community Editor of the Petaluma Argus-Courier newspaper in Petaluma.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

DT: Movies have always been a major enthusiasm for me. A perfect day is one where I see at least three movies in actual theaters, which of course, hasn’t happened in a while. I’ve also recently learned to tie balloon animals. So I’ve been doing a lot of that. I especially like making balloon dogs. They are classic.

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

DT: Honestly, I’ve often thought it would be cool to turn my Wretch Like Me play into a television series. Set in the ‘70s, in the beach communities and suburbs of LA, with a nerdy puppet-loving kid who gets ”adopted” by the Jesus Club at his school, and goes to wacky extremes trying to fit in. I see it as being like That 70s Show, but with a slightly cult vibe. And darker. And possibly funnier.

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

DT: “Amazing Grace,” because it was once very important to me on numerous levels, and because I learned how to sing it forwards and backward (literally backward). Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Street,” because I once danced to it in a mayonnaise factory during a moment of profound emotional release and freedom.

And the theme song to Rockford Files, which I long ago recognized as an excellent song to which my coffin might one day be carried away from the funeral service, an idea my family is well aware of and which I continue to stick to, at least for the moment.

ASR: Rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

DT: If randomly given the opportunity to go into space, specifically to the moon, I would go in a heartbeat. I’ve been dreaming of going to the moon since before I was dreaming of writing plays.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

DT: Currently, I’d say one quote I’ve been thinking about a lot happens to be from my own play, Galatea, which I look forward to sharing with the world soon, or soon enough: “Humans. Not a bad species really … just badly programmed.”

–30–

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

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Master Actor, Teacher, and Musician Mister Marvin Greene

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Marvin Greene

Marvin Greene is an amazing human being: actor, musician, teacher, voice over artist, New York cab driver  —   even a coal miner.

Legend has it he arrived in San Francisco in the cast of a road show of Biloxi Blues starring Woody Harrelson, and that he (Mr. Greene) loved the Bay Area so much … he put down roots and stayed here.

Marvin has been teaching acting, directing, and improvising around the Bay Area.  Just the briefest glance at his resume shows some illustrious names, including: A.C.T, San Jose Repertory Theater, Marin Shakespeare Company, Marina Theatre Company, Aurora Theater, and a host of others. He has taught acting at A.C.T., Berkeley Rep, the Academy of Art University and Voice One in San Francisco, among others. He has performed in regional theater, voice-over, television and film, and appeared in the feature film Fruitvale.

Marvin came to the theatre by way of his and other people’s music, starting his career playing guitar and cello in the pit orchestra for musicals. This is also a man who proffers damn good advice for people going into an audition, “Remember the word “show” in show business. Be charming!”

In addition to his “night job” as an actor/musician, Marvin has worked with the firm “Stand & Deliver Group” since 2012,  at organizations like Black Rock, Deloitte, and Cisco, focusing on helping individuals and teams find relevance in their messages; communicate honestly and without pretense; elevate their confidence; learn to read others; and communicate with brevity.

A graduate of Brown University in English literature, Marvin received his M.F.A. in Theater from the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

As busy as ever, Aisle Seat Review’s publisher Kris Neely managed to lasso Mr. Green long enough to get some answers to some of our favorite Not So Random Questions!

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

MG: First real play I performed in was A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I played Lysander.

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

MG: Have a heart attack and die instantly. The weird part is that right before we went on I said to the leading lady, “you look so hot you’re going to give some old man a heart attack.”

She did. But I suppose it was almost okay in the end. His wife told us that he loved the Theater and if he had chosen a way to go that would be it.

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

MG: James Barnhill. My first acting teacher at Brown University. He was one of the few professors I ever met who seemed to enjoy his job. He made me fall in love with acting.

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

MG: That was at the Longwharf Theater in 1984. I and another Equity Membership Candidate (EMC) had something like four or five lines each.

Before one show he said: “Watch me out there.” He went out and started ad-libbing the play.

His desire to be a star was so huge that he wrote himself a part and recited it for the audience. One of the actors improved him off the stage. Needless to say he never worked in that town again.

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

Know who you are.

Know who you are.

Know who you are.

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

MG: Ex-Lax.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make The Rules. What are the first three rules you put into place?

MG: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The rest… is commentary.

ASR: How do you relax before a performance?

MG: I play the guitar. Music is great because it’s a language beyond words. Doesn’t mess with the text.

…Shoes. I’m really fascinated by how they change you…

ASR: You have been given the opportunity to create the 30-minute TV show of your own design. What is it called and what’s the premise?

MG: Okay I’m really winging it here. It’s called PICK ME.

A guy is on-line dating and meets a girl who he’s so attracted that he can’t give up on her. After the first date she rejects him. So he keeps re-inventing himself through costume and behavior. She keeps rejecting him and picking the new version of him.

Eventually the end up together.

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

MG: I have many. They generally form when the problems in the play are the problems in our lives and we’re all working out our lives together as we work out the play together.

That creates a bond that is like family.

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

MG: Dark Was the Night by Blind Willie Johnson. Ry Cooder called it the “single most transcendent piece of American music.” It’s haunting, beautiful and deep beyond words.

Stardust by Louis Armstrong Louis has freedom and restraint in his playing at the same time. Total imagination and playfulness. Soul beyond description.

Something is New by Santana. It reminds me of being 16 with the world ahead of me. His playing is lyrical and the band is great.

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

MG: Shoes. I’m really fascinated by how they change you

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

MG: Well, anything topical, really. Cultures, like people, need breathing and healing time before their reflections become art.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing one of the following technical theater roles: Light, Props or Costumes which would it be and why?

MG: Costumes hands down. The pressure work is before the performance. Once the show is up you’re mostly planning for a new show, doing minor repairs on costumes and you’re way backstage where you can do or say what you want. Besides very few people can really do what you do so nobody gets in the way too much.

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

MG: A squirrel. Can you imagine how far they could leap?

ASR: Shark diving, bungee jumping, or skydiving?

MG: Shark diving.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

MG: It’s from The Godfather. They’ve just murdered this guy in a car.

One of the assassins says: “Leave the gun. Take the Cannoli.” (There was a pastry on the seat of the car.)

Legend has it that the actor made up the line on set.

-30-

Kris Neely

Kris Neely launched Aisle Seat Review in 2015. He is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of ASR. Mr. Neely is an SFBATCC Best Director Award Winner (2013). He is also the founder and publisher of Cresting Wave Publishing, LLC at www.gocwpub.com

 

 

 

The Editor’s Desk: Catching Up on Who We Are

It’s important in the life of an arts website to check in from time-to-time about what makes the website (and its staff) tick. Basic principles. And so this particular post.

Let’s face it, most people do not read the “About” (or equivalent) page on most websites. So, I’m going to post the content of ours here.  It’s worth a read if I do say so myself. We started with these basic ideas 5 years ago and have held to them pretty well to this day.

[start]

Aisle Seat Review (ASR) is created by people devoted to theater, opera, ballet, music performance, movies, writing, and the arts in all its forms.

While our primary focus is on the production of art in the greater San Francisco Bay area, our reviewers have been known to cross California and even go beyond.

If it’s well done — we’d like to see it, read it, or experience it.

Editorially, we hope to add our voices and experience to those helping to keep the arts vigorously alive and growing. We will tell you what we really think, not what we know the venue’s or person’s management would like us to say. If it’s bad, we’ll tell you how and why. If it’s good, we’ll tell you how and why.

We’ll strive to make our reviews interesting, original, well written, and well-edited. We may drop a page or two from the AP Manual of Style or Chicago Manual of Style, but know our hearts are in the right place (as in, at the beck-and-call of our editors…)

If you have an event, a book, a play, music, or a show you’d like us to cover, a comment, suggestion, or even a complaint please don’t hesitate to let us know at editors@aisleseatreview.com.

We’ll read every email and reply as necessary ASAP.

 

In the hard-fought trenches of contemporary art, being able to post a review in this manner conveys valuable information and opinion to our readers,..

Review Bylines

Our reviews have two types of bylines — an individual byline (i.e. “by Michael Brown”) and a team byline (i.e. “by Team ASR”.)

The TEAM ASR approach allows contributors to this site to remain anonymous when posting a review.

In the hard-fought trenches of contemporary art, being able to post a review in this manner conveys valuable information and opinion to our readers, while retaining/maintaining professional relationships.

While Team ASR contributors may do so anonymously, please understand that they take personal responsibility for creating their reviews and that all reviews are subject to editorial review without exception.

Now, here is where the rubber meets the road:

    • All content on Aisle Seat Review is subject to editorial review prior to publication.
    • All content accepted for publication on ASR is subject to editorial review, editing for space, approval of and by the Editorial staff.
    • Final approval or rejection of any and all content, language, “message”, or imagery (of any kind and in any form) is always reserved by and for ASR founder Mr. Neely.

Editorial Questions 

Q: Can submitted content be flat-out rejected by Aisle Seat Review?

A: In a word, yes. It is mainly a reflection of the majority vote from the editorial board who are the governing body that makes up this site. And, as before, final approval or rejection of any and all content, pictures, and language is always reserved by and for ASR founder Kris Neely.

Q: Are all the editors on Aisle Seat Review paid for their work? 

A: With the exception of Mr. Neely ASR’s Editor-in-Chief and Publisher who does not take any compensation, yes indeed, everyone else on this site is paid, monthly. We’re inordinately proud of that fact, too.

Lots of folks write about the arts and lots of people have people writing for their arts-oriented website. But goddamn few have the resolve and the commitment to pay their people. Our editors aren’t going to retire on what they make here, but that’s finally not the point. Respect for the craft of writing is.

Review Forms

Our reviews also come in a few basic forms, including:

  • An “Aisle Seat THEATER Review”
    • These focus primarily on the overall theatrical presentation with less emphasis on the underlying text.
  • An “Aisle Seat DRAMA Review”
    • These focus primarily on the playwright and his/her/their work and message(s).
  • An “Aisle Seat PLAY or SCRIPT Review”
    • These focus primarily on the words on the page of plays and scripts.
  • An “Aisle Seat TECHNICAL Review”
    • These focus primarily on the technical aspects of the performance, such as direction, lights, set design, costumes, make-up and wig design, sound design, stage management, and so on.
  • An “Aisle Seat PERFORMANCE (Music, Opera, Ballet, etc.) Review”
    • These are (non-theater) genre-specific event performance reviews.
  • “Thoughts from the Playwright’s Desk “
    • Without playwrights, the theater would be pretty dull. This column presents a forum for a playwright to voice his or her thoughts. If you’re a playwright and have something on your mind that you’d like to share with our readers, drop us a note at editors@aisleseatreview.com.
  • “A Few Words from The Management “
    • Performance Arts management and editorial staff often have thankless jobs. That said, the work these dedicated professionals do gives them a unique perspective on our world. We should hear more from them! So, if you’re in Performance Arts management or editorial and have something on your mind that you’d like to share with our readers, drop us a note at editors@aisleseatreview.com.
  • ” Lesson Notes: Performance Arts Teachers Speak Out”
    • Almost all of us started our performance journey in a classroom of one stripe or another. Often, performance teachers and/or teaching artists are cited as some of the most influential contributors of successful performing professionals. So, if you’re a teaching artist or teach in a more traditional school, college, or university setting (or are a retired teacher!) and have something on your mind that you’d like to share with our readers, drop us a note at editors@aisleseatreview.com.
  • An “Aisle Seat GEAR Profile”
    • These entries focus primarily on the hardware, software, and equipment used in the performing arts.

[end]

Thanks for reading this far. Much appreciated. Suggestions? ideas? Complaints? Drop us a note at editors@aisleseatreview.com.

I appreciate your time and attention. Hang in there and stay healthy!

Sincerely,

Kris Neely

Founder & Editor-in-Chief, Aisle Seat Review

Kris Neely

-30-

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time with Legendary Gentleman Squire George Maguire

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

George Maguire

 

Among a handful of Bay Area theater people with astoundingly deep credentials, George Maguire has enjoyed a 52-year professional career spanning Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theater, the National company of Nicholas Nickelby and more than thirty feature films.

He was Artistic Director of Solano College Theater for eighteen years, directing fifty main stage plays and musicals and helming the school’s renown Actor Training Program.

A couple of years ago, Maguire joined the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle as an adjunct member and voraciously continues to see and critique as many theater and film productions as possible.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

GM: I began in high school, first in Wilmington, Delaware in the chorus of both Brigadoon and Carousel where I had my first line: “Hey Nettie, ya burnin’ the lemonade?” Then we moved to Pittsburgh PA and it all ramped up quickly.

In one month, I played Freddy Eynesford Hill in My Fair Lady, graduated, went to prom, and got my AEA card at seventeen in Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera’s Top Banana with Phil Silvers, Mr. President with Vivian Blaine and the rest of the originals, Tovarich with Ginger Rogers, South Pacific with Georgio Tozzi and Elizabeth Allen (I met Richard Rogers when he came to see her in that show and then cast her in Do I Hear a Waltz?), and My Fair Lady in the ensemble. Quite a feat for a seventeen-year-old who couldn’t read a lick of music and knew only one audition song — yep, one — “On the Street Where You Live.

The choreographer of our high-school My Fair Lady was a major pro who worked with John Kenley and suggested that I and two others should audition for Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. We all got in! I did the next five seasons, going from second tenor to baritone-bass. I returned twice to Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera—in 1979 as Asst. Director and actor, and in 1981 as Max in The Sound of Music opposite John Shuck and Maureen McGovern.

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

GM: The first play as a director was Matchmaker at my old high school where I returned for four years as a teacher.

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

GM: Hundreds. Literally.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

GM: I formed Solano College Theater (SCT) in 1990 with Managing Director Dave Leonard. I retired from it seven years ago.

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

GM: I took the advice of one of my great mentors when I founded SCT —  Hire people who do what they do better than you can and then do what you do superbly. I hired actors and teachers like Nancy and Joy Carlin, Ken Sonkin, Bob Parsons, Julian Lopez Morillos, Carla Spindt, L. Peter Callender, and Sacramento’s Christine and Luther Hanson. Jon Tracy was a student then along with Johnny Moreno.

I brought in friends like Tom Hanks to do a major fundraiser. Writer José Rivera and Dave Leonard produced José ‘s first big hit House of Ramon Iglesia ( I had its initial readings at Ensemble Studio Theater in New York City.) I brought in guest lecturers like Meryl Shaw from ACT. It was a magical time.

I have an aversion to any play that must ask and answer at the first production meeting “What is your concept?”

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

GM: I’d have to say Vincent Dowling who was Artistic Director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival. (He also mentored both Rivera and Hanks.) His testament to enormous insight is that all of us are still dear friends since 1978.

Then I would say Olympia Dukakis in the brief semester I had with her at NYU. She was brutally tough and honest and I had no clue until years later how influential she was. Whatever moments of truth I have had both on film and on stage, I owe to her.

ASR: What are some of your favorite plays? Musicals?

GM: Plays: Cherry Orchard, The Visit, Richard II, A Streetcar Named Desire, A Long Day’s Journey into Night, All My Sons, Angels in America. Musicals: Sweeney Todd, South Pacific, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Cabaret (I’ve directed all three versions), and, well, so many more.

Faves that I produced and directed at Solano College Theater: Equus, The Elephant Man, Distracted, Eurydice, among others. They are my children.

ASR: And your least favorites?

GM: Least fave? Long ago I recognized I had no real interest in directing Shakespeare and indeed have directed only Calarco’s Romeo and Juliet for New Conservatory Theatre Center (NCTC.)

Let others do it! I have an aversion to any play that must ask and answer at the first production meeting “What is your concept?”

I have done conceptual work: Sweeney Todd I set in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors for example; and Equus, in the ruins of the Parthenon, but direct Shakespeare? Not me. Although to be completely open, I have done maybe twenty-some Shakespeare roles as an actor.

I’m often challenged as a director by musicals that flopped. Seussical I resurrected and completely re-thought. I had a blast!!

ASR: Can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

GM: Has to be Jim Carpenter. So honest and real and kind!

ASR: Which theater friendships mean the most to you?

GM: Our friendships are vital but they do not always continue post-production. Those from the Great Lakes era have lasted more than forty years, with two Oscars for one, and an Oscar nomination for the other.

What is true about this is that for all of us the person we met way back when is the treasure we love and success is measured by compassion, not by a resumé.

ASR: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be your apprentice and learn all that you know?

GM: Hmm. Tricky. OK, here goes…

1. Be true to yourself, and enter the workspace always with an idea.

2. Always breathe before you answer a question.

3. Research! Research! Research!

ASR: What are your interests outside the theater?

GM: I am a major museum freak. I love them, having studied art when I spent a year in Germany at nineteen. Also, opera and symphony. In Germany, I heard Schwartzkopf sing Der Rosenkavalier, for example. I am not a big contemporary music person, probably due to my hearing impairment.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” deal?

GM: A ticket to Dude, the Musical! I was there on opening night. Oy!

ASR: If you could create a 30-minute TV series what would it be?

GM: It would definitely be about Great Lakes days in a format like Schitz Creek.

ASR: Care to mention a favorite song?

GM: Having had health issues all my life — hearing impairment, Meniere’s Syndrome, etc, I resonate to “Being Alive.”

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

GM: I would never parachute, climb a mountain, etc. Fuck, I’m 73! Walking on stage while having a vertigo attack is risk enough for me.

-30-

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

 

 

ASR’s Not-So-Random Questions for Theater People: The Very Real, The Very Talented, The Very Amazing, The Very Cool Jeffrey Lo

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black. These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Jeffrey Lo is a Filipino-American playwright and director based in the Bay Area. He is the recipient of the 2014 Leigh Weimers Emerging Arist award, the 2012 Emerging Artist Laureate by Arts Council Silicon Valley and Theatre Bay Area Director’s TITAN Award.

Selected directing credits include The Language Archive and The Santaland Diaries at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Vietgone at Capital Stage, A Doll’s House, Part 2 and Eurydice at Palo Alto Players (TBA Awards finalist for Best Direction), Peter and the Starcatcher and Noises Off at Hillbarn Theatre, The Grapes of Wrath, The Crucible and Yellow Face at Los Altos Stage Company and Uncle Vanya at the Pear Theatre (BATCC award for Best Production).

As a playwright, his plays have been produced and workshopped at The BindleStiff Studio, City Lights Theatre Company and Custom Made Theatre Company. His play Writing Fragments Home was a finalist for the Bay Area Playwright’s Conference and a semi-finalist for the O’Neill Playwright’s Conference.

Jeffrey has also worked with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, San Jose Repertory, Aurora Theater, and is a company member of Ferocious Lotus Theatre Company and SF Playground.

In addition to his work in theatre he works as an educator and advocate for issues of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and has served as a grant panelist for the Zellerbach Family Foundation, Silicon Valley Creates and Theatre Bay Area. He is the Casting Director at the Tony Award Winning TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, a graduate of the Multicultural Arts Leadership Institute, and a proud alumnus of the UC Irvine Drama Department.

Amidst all that activity he sat down with ASR’s Publisher Kris Neely for a chat.

Jeffrey Lo

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

JL – In high school I acted in this production of a play called Addict which was a series of pseudo-monologues about what could happen if one falls into drug abuse. First play I directed for a paying artist was later that year. It was a play I wrote and directed called “With Love, Jaysson.”

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

JL– I wouldn’t say this is the weirdest but it sticks out in my mind. I was house managing a production of Theresa Rebeck’s play Bad Dates at the Dragon Theatre and they were having a “ladies night” special where every audience member received free champagne or wine at the beginning of the performance.

There was a bachelorette party that showed up and this very excited bride to be came up to me asking how much to buy a bottle for her bridesmaids. I let her know that because of the ladies night special they all got champagne for free. She told me it was a special night and she wanted to buy a bottle for her ladies. I repeated that it was all free. After going in circles for a bit, I just made up a price and handed the group a bottle of champagne.

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

JL – I think we all stand on the shoulders of giants so it’s hard to pick one. I’ll go with Julia Cho because through her work and our limited interactions she has reminded me how an artist can lead with heart, kindness and immense talent.

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

JL – When I was an apprentice at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, I worked on their production of Julia Cho’s The Language Archive and towards the end of the play, a letter is supposed to fall magically from the sky and the character of Emma is supposed to exclaim, “A letter!’

On our final preview, the letter fell from the sky alright … but immediately slipped through one of the scenic tracks and fell beneath the stage.

The actress stared at the empty spot where the letter should have been and had no choice but to go on with exclaiming, “A letter!”

The whole audience erupted with laughter because they saw the letter slip under the stage. Little did we know, there was a crew member beneath the stage and after Emma said her line, we slowly saw the letter rise up from the crevice which got even more laughter and more applause from the audience. It was a magical moment and our playwright asked, “could it happen that way every night?”

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

JL – Let me break this down a bit for you:

For playwrights – remember that your first draft is not your final draft. Your first draft isn’t even the second draft. No one has to read the first draft. Don’t edit yourself before you have to. Don’t get in your own way of finishing your draft. Finish the first draft and take it from there.

For directors – the lighting designer will know more about lighting design that you. The actor will know more about acting than you. Your job as director is not to know more than everyone else in the room. Your job as director is to know enough to be able to identify when your talented collaborators have better ideas than you.

For humans – ask yourself how you can help people. I know it’s impossible to spend every second and every choice of your life towards helping people, but if you make it a practice in your life to take the time to think it through whenever you can – I think it will lead you towards a good path.

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

JL – Buy one gun get one free. We don’t need guns.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make The Rules. What are the first three rules you put into place?

JL – Hmmm….OK, here goes…

1 – Be kind.

2 – Be chill.

3 – Have fun.

(In order of importance and in order of which rule overtakes the others.)

ASR: How do you relax before a performance?

JL – If it’s an opening night, I tend to spend my mornings of openings drinking coffee, listening to music and writing thank you cards.

ASR: You have been given the opportunity to create the 30-minute TV show of your own design. What is it called and what’s the premise?

JL – Some sort of variety show with amazing under-represented and under-appreciated artists doing what they do best. I’d call it HIRE THESE PEOPLE.

…The actress stared at the empty spot where the letter should have been and had no choice but to go on with exclaiming, “A letter!”

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

JL – I think they’d assume I was wrongfully arrested.

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

JL – Easily Leslie Martinson. To be fair, she started as a theater-related friendship, evolved into a mentor-ship and evolved further into just full everyday friendship. When I was right out of undergrad, Leslie and I had an informational interview of sorts over a coffee and she hired me to be her assistant director for her production of Superior Donuts at TheatreWorks.

She’s given me so many opportunities, provided advice at every turn and was really the first person to see me as an artist and essentially say, “You are someone special. You can do this.”

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

JLJust My Imagination by The Temptations for the way they are able to perfectly encapsulate and blur the lines of happiness and melancholy in such a smooth and beautiful tune.

Dahil Sa lyo – it’s the quintessential Filipino love song. If you know, you know. I recommend the cover by Bay Area singing quintet Pinay. There’s also an excellent version that Nat King Cole sang live at his concert in the Philippines.

Kendrick Lamar – Alright. It’s a song of protest. A song of celebration. A song of anger. A song of hope. It’s pretty perfect.

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

JL – The right tie can do a lot for your day.

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

JL – Easy, Miss Saigon.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

JL – I think the history plays are almost all underrated. My favorite is Henry V.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing one of the following technical theater roles: Light, Props or Costumes which would it be and why?

JL – Assuming I knew how to do it well, lighting. I’m always astounded by the ways lights can enhance, shift and inform everything that we do in theatre.

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

JL – I’d prefer to scale down animals to the size of a baby corgi. A horse the size of a baby corgi? Adorable. But if I HAD to scale an animal up. Probably a sea turtle.

ASR: Shark diving, bungee jumping, or skydiving?

JL – None. I’m good feeling safe on land.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

 JL – “We’re all freaks, depending on the backdrop.” – Passing Strange

Publisher’s Note: ASR Publisher Kris Neely wants it firmly on the record that he first predicted we’d all one day pay Big Money to see Mr. Lo’s directorial finesse on Broadway. So let’s keep the record straight on that one, because it’s going to happen. — KN

-30-

Kris Neely

Kris Neely launched Aisle Seat Review in 2015. He is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of ASR. Mr. Neely is an SFBATCC Best Director Award Winner (2013). He is also the founder and publisher of Cresting Wave Publishing, LLC at www.gocwpub.com

 

 

ASR’s Not-So-Random Questions for Theater People: Marvelous Musical Theater Maven Rita Abrams

Rita Abrams

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

A native of Cleveland, Ohio — she was a high school classmate of KQED’s Michael Krasny — Rita Abrams launched her career in 1970 when her novelty song “Mill Valley” stormed its way up the charts.

At a time of great social and political upheaval—not unlike today—the song was a breath of fresh air among nonstop sermons about war, racism, poverty, and environmental destruction. With its success, Abrams went from being a local grade-school teacher to instant fame, guest-starring on “Hollywood Squares” and dating prominent entertainers.

50 years later she is still going strong, continuing to pen some of the cleverest tunes ever created.

Recipient of two Emmy’s and multiple SFBATCC nominations and awards, Abrams is perhaps best known for her long-running Marin County spoof For Whom the Bridge Tolls (a collaboration with Stan Sinberg) and many musicals, including Pride and Prejudice, scheduled for May 2021 at Ross Valley Players. Among friends, she’s known as the quickest wit in the west.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

RA: I wrote poems and songs all my life, starting with family musical sagas.

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

RA: My first paid performance was singing “Bell Bottom trousers, coat a navy blue” when I was three. The neighbors paid me ten cents apiece. As an adult, I made a musical out of a quirky little love triangle play written by a TV comedy writer friend which ran in a little SF theatre.

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

RA: My stage musicals have been produced by fifteen theatre companies. I’ve also composed for various children’s media and educational companies . . . maybe twenty-five companies altogether.

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

RA: My mother, who introduced me to the work of all the great musical theatre composers and lyricists, and many lesser known ones as well. The Cleveland public schools took us regularly to great theatre and concerts, and my parents took me to New York to see Broadway shows.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas?

RA: Intimidating question but I’ll try: Raisin in the Sun, Private Lives, Our Town, Fences, Bad Jews . . . and then there’s Shakespeare and too many more to mention.

ASR: Musicals? Comedies?

RA: All of Rogers & Hammerstein, Fiddler on the Roof, The Music Man, The Fantasticks, And the World Goes Round (Kander & Ebb Revue), Hamilton, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Lost in Yonkers, The Heidi Chronicles, The Sisters Rosensweig.

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

RA: George Maguire.

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

RA: Regarding songwriting:

1. Write lyrics you can easily speak, as in conversation.

2. Build as the song progresses—Save the biggest, funniest, or most moving for last, and don’t be too repetitive or derivative. Keep introducing new ideas or twists.

3. With comedy songs—never give away the punchline, especially in the title, and when possible, end with a surprise.

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

RA: Very tough question, as I love so many of the actors and musicians (and even a few collaborators) I’ve worked with. But when I asked a great bass player friend—Jack Prendergast—if he knew any conductor/synthesizer players for Just My TYPE, a 2018 Ross Valley Players musical, he surprised me by saying he could do the job. He worked so hard on all aspects of the music that he won my heart. We’re still together, and still working together on music.

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

RA: The wacky satirical musical revue about Marin County, For Whom the Bridge Tolls, that I co-created and produced with Stan Sinberg, from 1994 to 2005, was filled with unscripted goofs and gaffes. One night during the sketch, The Overpasses of Marin County (a parody of The Bridges of Madison County), Frank Brown, as photographer for “Dangerous Exits Magazine,” while passionately embracing Sharon Boucher as “Francesca,” caught her long black wig in his belt buckle, where it hung amid gales of laughter from the audience. For two actors who knew how to ham it up, this was their moment. The hilarity went on and on.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

RA: When an actress in one of my shows forgot the lyrics to her solo, and sang the same verse twice in a row, she, a tough one, dismissed it as no big deal—but I was mortified, fearing the audience would think that was how I wrote the song!

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

RA: I was playing piano for a show at San Francisco’s Improv Comedy Club, when in the middle of a scene, a disheveled figure ambled up to the stage and started riffing. A rumble arose from the audience, turning to a roar as they realized who it was—Robin Williams!

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

RA: Not one day job, but revolving freelance gigs—like B.C. (Before Covid) writing scripts for Gregangelo’s Velocity Entertainment shows, and I’m a longtime writer of greeting cards, which is fortunately pandemic-proof.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

RA: All forms of entertainment: Scrabble, Zoom Fictionary, watching the horror unfolding on MSNBC, and now trying to plan some kind of virtual commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of our Miss Abrams & the Strawberry Point School Third Grade Class “Mill Valley” record release. And keeping in touch with family, like my daughter in LA.

When an actress in one of my shows forgot the lyrics to her solo, and sang the same verse twice in a row

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture?

RA: Truthfully, while I’m interested in everything, I’m usually focused on my original music and theatre creations.

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

RA: Just the artifice of pretending not to age.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

RA: 1. Enforced Social Distancing between Democrats and Republicans. 2. Twenty minutes of daily laugh therapy before rising. 3. No fitbits.

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

RA: Canned tripe, or dinner with the current president. Not necessarily in that order.

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

RA: “Where Have I Been All My Life?” features real senior citizens confessing their one big regret, and then, through the magic of technology, being able to reverse and redo it, for all the world to see.

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

RA: Been mistaken for someone more interesting.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

RA: Sequined mask.

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

RA: A butterfly.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

RA: Just reading the names gives me heart palpitations.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

RA:

1. From Just My TYPE (book by Charlotte Jacobs & Michael Sally): “I can change him AFTER we get married.”

2. From For Whom the Bridge Tolls: “Between my mani-pedi, my Shiatsu massage, my Bickram Yoga, and my Zumba class…I have NO time for ME!!”

ASR: Theatrical event you are most looking forward to?

RA: The Ross Valley Players production of Josie Brown’s and my Pride and Prejudice Musical from May 13th to June 13th, 2021. Phoebe Moyer will direct the great lineup of talent already we’ve already cast.

-30-

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

 

ASR Not-So-Random Question Time! The Very Model of a Modern Major Talent — Ron Severdia

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Ron Severdia

Actor, magician, and tech entrepreneur Ron Severdia may be the most diverse theatrical talent in the North Bay. His solo performance of A Christmas Carol is a must-see. Last year he won critical acclaim for his performance in Every Brilliant Thing at Left Edge Theatre. He found time in his busy schedule to chat with ASR.

ASR: Your background?

RS: I was born and raised (mostly) in Marin County. I started as a magician when I was around seven and got into theatre shortly after. I’ve been performing on stage and in film ever since.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

RS: I started doing magic when I was young and I was a voracious reader. I read everything about Houdini I could get my hands on. Houdini told a story of where he got his name—a magician he admired named Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, who famously said “A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” This fascinated my young mind and began my jump into the world of acting.

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

RS: My first acting gig was a film, not a play. My fifth grade teacher was teaching about the Revolutionary War and working with our class to product a film. The story was an old man and his wife who’d lived through the war telling their grandchildren about it through flashbacks. I was the old man with old makeup and all. There was a big night where the whole school, including parents and teachers, came to watch the film. This was my big debut, but I was sick that day and my parents wouldn’t let me go. To this day, I’ve never seen that film, but when I went back to school I heard how “amazing” my performance was.

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

RS: Dozens. In the Bay Area, London, Prague, and various other places.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

RS: I started the Modern Shakespeare Company (https://www.modernshakespeare.com) maybe 20 years ago, but it’s just my thing and there’s only been one so-called performance.

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

RS: Um, no.

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

RS: Making Shakespeare and the classics accessible. I really took an interest in director Buzz Goodbody. I was intrigued by her approach at the RSC. She took over their costume shed (“The Other Place”) and made it into a successful experimental theatre.

The seminal Macbeth with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench premiered there and so did Ben Kingsley’s Hamlet, during which she committed suicide at the age of 28—a metaphor of Haley’s Comet.

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

RS: No one single person, rather a variety of really smart people—many of whom were teachers during my time at ACT (Rod Gnapp, Ken Ruta, Larry Hecht) or RADA (Andrew). I always hope to learn something from the directors I work with and my fellow actors.

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

RS: I’ve done some musicals in the past (the last one was Cabaret at CenterRep a few years back), but I’m kinda done with those.

Some of the dramas I like and would like to do someday are Cyrano, Of Mice & Men (Lenny, of course), and Nick Dear’s adaptation of Frankenstein.

As for comedies, I really enjoyed Hangmen (McDonough’s brilliant black comedy), The Play That Goes Wrong, or Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests—all of which I’d love to do.

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

RS: My last show at Left Edge Theatre was a solo show called Every Brilliant Thing, which tells the story of a young boy as he grows up trying to cope with his mother’s depression and suicide attempts. It’s funny, sad, and presents a difficult subject in a really moving way.

I performed as Miles in Left Edge Theatre’s world premiere of Sideways in 2017, which had an awesome cast and collaborated with author Rex Pickett. It was great to share this story that has had an indelible impact on the wine industry.

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

RS: Neil Simon. I’ve felt this way for many years, which actually led to me taking a role in the world premiere of Dale Wasserman’s play Premiere. It’s the story of a playwright so successful he gets bored with writing one Broadway hit after another so he decides to write a play in verse and pass it off as a long lost play by William Shakespeare. When Dale’s widow flew out to see the play, she told me how Dale and Neil Simon were great friends and, ironically, the character I was playing (the playwright) was really based on Neil Simon.

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

RS: Oooooh. There’s a long list. Let’s start with Our Town and the entire Andrew Lloyd Webber canon.

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

RS: Definitely The Norman Conquests or even a solid production of Deathtrap (which is really rare).

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

RS: Hands down, King John. It’s a great play that can be done with a small cast in a small theatre. The text can veer off course a little, but nothing a director/dramaturg couldn’t sort out. There are some great verbal exchanges in there.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

RS: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s easy to do, especially for kids and newbies to Shakespeare.

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

RS: Probably sound design. Maybe set design. To me, both are a little more conceptual and appeal to me more than the other aspects.

I think I’d be scared of any animal smaller than a horse being scaled up…

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

RS: Very hard. Jarion Monroe, Julian Lopez-Morillas, Stacy Ross. There are so many talented people in the Bay Area.

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

RS: First, the typical vocal and physical warm-ups to get things going. Then I have show-specific warm-ups depending on the show. It might be songs that evoke for me the spirit of the play or it might be speeding through the lines of a particularly challenging part. Followed by an espresso.

After the show, it’s all about trying to wind down. That takes me longer when I have smaller parts in the show. For larger parts, winding down is easier due to the vocal/physical demand.

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

RS:

1. Work constantly on your instrument, mentally and physically.

2. Study the classics. Mine them for gems. They’re classics for a reason.

3. Become self-aware by learning the connection between how you think you’re perceived and how you actually are.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

RS: Yes, I’m the head of product design for a Silicon Valley technology company.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

RS: I created a few theatre related apps that I work on outside of theatre:

Shakespeare Pro: An app containing the complete works, glossary, search and a variety of other features to help students, teachers, actors, directors and other theatre professionals. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/shakespeare-pro/id341392367

Soliloquy Pro: An app to manage your monologues and help you memorize them. Search from over a thousand classic pieces and share them with others. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/soliloquy-pro/id1029313343

Scriptigo Pro: An app to manage file/theatre scripts, take notes, and share with others. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/scriptigo-pro/id1444743519

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

RS: A simple black cotton t-shirt.

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

RS: I think I’d be scared of any animal smaller than a horse being scaled up that big! Good premise for a horror flick though.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

RS: Meh. I’ve done some of those things, but I’m not an “adrenaline junkie” by any stretch.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

RS: Movie: “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” — Indiana Jones (gets more and more relevant as I get older)

Stage Play: “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” —Charles Condomine (Blithe Spirit)

-30-

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

 

ASR Not-So-Random Question Time: Actor, Director, Teacher and Did We Mention He Works Insanely Hard? It’s Michael Ray Wisely.

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Michael Ray Wisely

Michael Ray Wisely is one busy guy: actor, director, teacher, and more. He has long been one of the Bay Area theater scene’s most prolific members. Most recently he played the despicable manipulator Iago in African American Shakespeare Company’s production of Othello, and was a core member of the SF Playhouse production of Aaron Loeb’s Ideation, a stunningly apocalyptic dark comedy that went from San Francisco to an extended run in New York. MRW kindly took time from his hectic schedule to chat with Aisle Seat Review.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

MRW: Mrs. Stuart’s 6th grade class and, later, I literally knocked on a door!

My first experience was playing Huck Finn in an adaptation of Tom Sawyer. My 6th grade teacher, (Nancy Stuart, now deceased) told me that I had potential, but, growing up poor, the idea of being a theatre artist was as remote as being an Apollo astronaut. After high school I went to college for broadcast journalism, had a summer internship working as an on-air DJ at a radio station, but couldn’t afford to return to school fall semester. With few prospects, I joined the Air Force with the idea of eventually getting a degree in electronics engineering.

Here’s where “the door” opened. I was exploring the neighborhood near McChord Air Force Base one day and saw the Lakewood Playhouse. I knocked on the door to get some information and just as I was leaving, the AD asked me if I could read for a part that evening because some-one had just quit. I said yes, and two years later, I chose to go to a conservatory training program rather than re-signing with the Air Force. I started my professional career the month after college and never looked back.

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

MRW: Amateur: Tom Sawyer, in the 6th grade. Directing: A touring theatre company Children’s Theatre Workshop. As an AEA actor: San Jose Stage Company.

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

MRW: 25 to 50. I really don’t know.

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

MRW: It’s a village. I learned my craft in the traditional way: classical training followed by apprenticeship, followed by work. So many actors and directors that I have worked with have left their mark and I still meet new teachers, sometimes in the youngest members of a company who remind me what open-eyed awe and reverence look like.

As to the stalwarts, I would probably have to say my wife Wendy (a director/actor/professor herself) , the late, great Sydney Walker (a mentor, and in the original acting company of Bill Ball at ACT), casting director Annie Stuart (Playground), who was a big champion of my work, and the many AD’s/directors who have hired me over the years. So many people are a part of who I am as an actor/director. It’s humbling to think about. I could list 100 + and still wouldn’t be giving someone their due.

I think that’s one of the great lessons in this business. The next person you meet, the next move you make, could change your career, your acting, your life, your world, forever. Understanding that is the key to a sustained career in anything I think. I believe in the power of the arts to change the world in the same way. I try to pass it on by being a mentor any time I am fortunate enough to be given the chance.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How are you coping with the shutdown?

MRW: It changes week to week. Some weeks, I’ve been really productive. I’ve done online readings with other actors working on dream projects. I’ve made some short films and put together some online film auditions.

Mostly, I’ve been trying to organize, plan, file and take care of the minutia of life so I can be more focused when we get back to some kind of normal. Some days are better than others, but I cannot complain as I have a great life, generous talented friends, a roof, food, and my wife and daughter. I live in gratitude even more than usual.

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

MRW: Tough one … As an actor/director, my planning is dependent on the theaters I collaborate with. I usually know what I’m doing for six months to a year in advance, and I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen now. Both of the shows I had have been postponed. One has been moved to next summer and the other’s fate is in the hands of the gods.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community over-all?

MRW: I think in the short term our community is already deeply affected by the economic situation. We may lose several companies and the ones that survive will be in difficulty for quite some time. I’ve always believed in the theatre as a survivor and no doubt it will. Some great art is going to come out of this, but we’re all going to be changed. It is my hope that our communities will rally in support of artists and companies, that theatre companies will have more appreciation for their local artists, and that we will all understand how fortunate we are to make art on a deeper level than before.

One thing is for sure: when people feel safe to be in the dark with strangers again, it will be electric, life affirming, and I’m looking forward to the pathos of those moments.

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

MRW: I’m often so in love with what I’ve just done or what I’m about to do that it’s a difficult question. Playing Robert in Pinter’s Betrayal was a favorite, as was Iago in Othello. I’ve played some of Shakespeare’s greatest clowns as well as the Scottish King. I love challenging language and that has drawn me to playwrights like G.B. Shaw, Pinter, O’Neill, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Wilde, Williams, and more recent playwrights like Mamet, Rebecca Gilman, Tracy Letts, and Theresa Rebeck.

A favorite is Ideation, by Aaron Loeb, a local playwright and friend. I worked on the play with Aaron and the rest of the company, put together by SF Playhouse, and ended up going with it for an off-Broadway run with the original cast intact. It’s hard to top that kind of experience. Aaron’s language is specific, smart, fast, and a thrill for the audience and the actor.

We’ve got some insanely gifted writers here in the Bay Area: Jonathon Spector, Lauren Yee, Michael Gene Sullivan, Geetha Reddy, and Lauren Gunderson (ok, she’s not a native but we claim her) to name a few. As a matter of fact, local playwright Anthony Clarvoe wrote an incredible drama called The Living that I performed in at San Jose Stage Company in the mid-90s. Written as an AIDS parable, it was about the bubonic plague in 1666. It’s a beautiful play and I’ve been revisiting it during this pandemic. So many things it chronicles are happening right now—the fear, the misinformation, the avarice, the stupidity. That’s what good art does—it stays relevant because it speaks universal truths in inventive ways. That’s why art and artists are important.

Favorite Musicals: Sweeney Todd was the first musical that really made me sit up and take notice. I’m a sucker for classics like Guys and Dolls. Of the ones I’ve been in, On the 20th Century is a favorite, and I loved playing Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast and the Sheriff in Whorehouse. I rarely do musicals, but really enjoy them when I’m given the opportunity.

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

MRW: I’ve got several. Some I’d like to see put away forever, but, I won’t say because I wouldn’t want to denigrate any artist’s work just because I don’t like it or don’t find it interesting. The act of theatre is brave in any of its many disciplines and it should be celebrated. With that, I will say that there are things I’ve despised, mocked and laughed at that I’m sure have been important to or changed the lives of others.

I’ve got an example for that I’ll share over a cocktail sometime.

I learned my craft in the traditional way: classical training followed by apprenticeship, followed by work.

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

MRW: Big, giant plays with large casts, fire and water and spectacle. More Shaw and Chekhov and sweeping dramas 3+ hours long. When I go to the National Theatre in London sometimes and see these epic straight plays with a cast of 25 and more, it is thrilling and heartbreaking to me because American audiences will rarely ever get that experience with the exception of musicals.

Societies are known by the art they create. Look at how we revere art of the past. The support of the arts by our government should be an order of national pride, not a wedge used by career politicians to hold on to power and separate the people that art is serving. It’s a travesty and should be seen as a national shame, but, alas, there’s plenty more of that to go around.

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

MRW: I think Love’s Labours Lost. It is such a simple love story on the surface and yet it is filled with characters whose very human actions expose love and its many sides with a sophistication not seen in later plays. It’s singular and original in that it doesn’t seem to be taken from other plays and stories of the time. It also has an ending that’s surprisingly melancholy, as love is postponed.

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

MRW: Sound and projections/video. I love creating with sound and am a photographer and filmmaker. Sound can move people subconsciously and I am a sucker for those who are brilliant with it. As an actor, it can raise the stakes of a scene or the reality of a play in every way.

One story that I remember is sitting in the audience of Superior Donuts at Theatre Works several seasons back and when the “furnace” came on in the donut shop, it had a visceral bass WHOOMP to it that I could feel in the middle of the theatre. We were inside that donut shop. It was wonderfully surprising and I thanked Bay Area sound designer Jeff Mokus for bringing me the reality of what an old oil furnace feels/sounds like when it starts up.

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

MRW: Many could fit that description, but I’d like to hold up a couple of up-and-coming artists you may not be familiar with: Patrick Kelly Jones and Tristan Cunningham. They knock me out. Both of them have great skill and are inventive and make surprising choices.

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

MRW: My warm-ups are all about ritual. I have a routine vocally a few hours before a show then physically in the space and then I get very particular, even superstitious, about the order and timing up to curtain. I’ve heard professional athletes talk about this as well. It changes a little from show to show, but it’s always been that way for me. I’m not alone in pre-curtain idiosyncrasies. We’re a ritualistic tribe.

After a show, you can be so wound up and tired at the same time that you have to have some kind of cool down. Sometimes it’s drinks with friends, but I try to keep that in check for obvious reasons. No matter how I chose to do it, it always takes a few hours.

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

MRW: These three…

1) Show up! (on time, prepared, ready to throw down. That’s the entry fee for a career.)

2) Integrity! Professional and personal (Do your work in the service of others and the project and know why you do it. If it’s only about you, you’re not going to make it.)

3) TCB! (taking care of the business of your career, treating people well, caring, following up. How you go about your business is as important as everything else you do.)

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

MRW: I have a few people that I can talk to in any way about anything! That’s important as an artist. You need to have a few people in your life, a posse even, who you can let it hang out with. Who you can be ridiculous with, risk with, and be wrong with. People who know your heart and your artist and will not judge you by your worst day and will hold up your best days as the true measure of who you are. Greatness can come out of those relationships.

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

MRW: A couple made out and fondled each other in the front row of a 250-seat house.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

MRW: Film/television and radio acting. I had my own show in the early days of DIY television. I have freelanced directing corporate films and live shows. I’ve coached people on public speaking and have taught acting and been a guest lecturer at several colleges. Acting and directing in the theatre have been my focus for over thirty years now. I’ve been a fortunate man.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

MRW: Travel, sailing, film making, photography, building, weightlifting, tennis, motorcycles, cooking, surfing and I’ve dabbled in hang gliding, and autocross racing.

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

MRW: I do when I can. If you’re lucky enough to be working show to show (and that is what you need to do if you want to make a living) it can be difficult. When I’m not working, I’m at the theatre. I love seeing new talent and having my colleagues surprise me. As far as the other arts, I love photography and making films. I’m often in pursuit of one or the other and a lot of it just for me and my friends.

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

MRW: Root canal or colonoscopy.

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

MRW: Got into a fist-fight defending someone who needed help.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

MRW: I’ve done most of the ones listed and have also been hang-gliding. But shark diving? Absolutely not. Two ways I’d rather not die—one is as a predator’s dinner and the other is in a plane full of screaming people. Now, I do surf and fly, so I guess it’s up to fate. I’d really like a long life and, other than dying surrounded by loved ones, I think it would be great to die on stage or at rehearsal, maybe in an actual death scene.

Coda: I also don’t want to die stepping out into the street and being hit by a bus because you’d have to be thinking to yourself: “Ohhhh, F#*k, this is such a stupid way to die.”

ASR: If you had to play one role you’ve already done for a year, what would it be?

MRW: I’ve played both Bluntchli and Petkoff in Arms and the Man and Petkoff is one of those perfect comic characters. The world of the play acts on him instead of the other way around. He’s lovable, bombastic, and has some of the greatest comic bits where everyone knows what’s happening but him. It’s great fun and there’s great possibility for rolling laughs. He also carries no real weight, so it’s all the fun with very little responsibility. I love carrying a play, and getting the girl sometimes, but, it’s also nice to just be the guy who gets the laughs.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

MRW: I get a new favorite every play. Like most actors, I also often find lines that are problematic from first rehearsal to the final curtain. That’s the joy and the curse of being in the theatre. There are a thousand that I wish I could say again in front of an audience. Recently, I remember taking joy in a line of Iago’s: “And what’s he then that says I play the villain?” after which the audience would often burst out in laughter. When it first happened, it surprised me.

They were laughing at the horrible way I had just manipulated Cassio. There were others that jeered and hissed. It’s magic and you and the audience both know it and feel it. As I finished the speech, they unwittingly became accomplices in the undoing of Othello and the eventual murder of Desdemona. That’s the power of words and language. It should never be underestimated

-30-

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

ASR Not-So-Random Question Time: On the Curtain Line with Spreckels Theatre Company Artistic Director Sheri Lee Miller

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Sheri Lee Miller

Sheri Lee Miller has enjoyed a lifelong career as a professional stage director, actor and theater administrator, working with some of the leading theaters on the West Coast, including Seattle Rep, A Contemporary Theater, Tacoma Actors Guild, Gaslamp Quarter Theater, and Seattle Children’s Theater. Locally, she has been privileged to direct and act at Cinnabar Theater, Sonoma County Rep, 6th Street Playhouse, Actors Theater, Spreckels Theatre Company, and Main Stage West, where she is a founding member.

She holds a B.A. in Theater Arts from San Diego State University, with a double emphasis on acting and directing.

She has appeared in dozens of television commercials, voice-overs, industrial films and print ads, and is a member of Actors Equity and AFTRA. Sheri is Artistic Director at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, a position she’s held since July 2017. The center’s Codding Theater, with more than 500 seats, is Sonoma County’s largest. The center also operates the adjacent Condiotti Theater, a smaller venue. It is not unusual for two productions to be running simultaneously.

Sheri strongly believes that exposure to the arts in general and theater in particular leads to a more thoughtful, balanced and empathetic society. “I truly believe that art and artistry must be nurtured at home, at school and in the community if we as a society are to achieve the highest levels of empathy and humanity.”

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

SLM: We are probably most known for our big musicals in the Codding Theater, which are pretty fantastic, I must say. But we also do excellent smaller shows in our Condiotti studio space. We are committed to supporting new works, especially by local playwrights if possible. We are trying to keep one slot open for a new play each season, but we won’t put up just anything because it is new. It has to be a great script. We also have a very strong youth program, the Spreckels Education Program. Those young actors are very committed and it’s a pleasure to watch them develop. They do great work!

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

SLM: Probably my instructor at Santa Rosa JC, Joan Lee LaSalle (Woehler). She was my friend and mentor. Powerful, kind and brilliant. I think of her often and hope she is proud.

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

SLM: We are working on an enormous restructuring of our various storage areas and a box office remodel. We are moving tens of thousands of costume items and will photograph and catalog them for ease of use and rental. We’ve also finished our props storage rooms. Sadly, our wonderful part-timers are currently laid off. So this is a lot of work for only three of us—Eddy Hansen, Gail Shelton and myself—to accomplish. And we are having a ball with it! I love this kind of work. Sooooo satisfying. And it’s great to be doing something physical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

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

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

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

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

SLM: A potato bug.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

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

-30-

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

 

ASR Not-So-Random Questions Time: All the World’s a Stage for Bob & Lesley Currier of Marin Shakes

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…Tequila.

ASR: Does your company have a special focus?

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. How has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bob and Lesley: Tequila.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

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

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

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

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

Lesley: Hamlet — “The rest is silence.”

-30-

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

 

 

 

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

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Robert Kelley

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

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: When was your present company formed?

RK: 1970. I’m the founder.

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

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

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

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

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

RK: Stephen Sondheim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts world by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

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

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

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

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

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

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

RK: I pace.

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

RK: Do you have an hour?

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

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

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

RK: Collecting beach glass, mushroom hunting.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

RK: Patience, laughter, listening.

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

RK: Titus Andronicus.

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

RK: Forgot to stage a scene.

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

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

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

RK: Reading the paper the day after opening.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

RK: “Children will listen.”

-30-

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

 

ASR Not-So-Random Questions Time: The Theatre Maestro with a Great Sense of Humor — Tom Ross!

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Tom Ross

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

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

He directed 30 productions for the company.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He told me that I should be a director.

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

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

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

Only get involved in projects you truly believe in.

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

ASR: How do you relax before a performance?

TR: Thai food and a glass of pinot grigio.

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

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

TR: Lied about my age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

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

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing one of the following technical theater roles: Light, Props or Costumes which would it be and why?

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

I like the subliminal. Lights and sound for me.

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

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

ASR: Shark diving, bungee jumping, or skydiving?

TR: Skydiving.

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

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

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

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

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

-30-

 

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

ASR Not-so-Random Questions Time: Actors Gregory Crane and Amber Collins Crane — Two for the Footlights

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Gregory Crane
Amber Collins Crane

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

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

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

ASR: How did you get started in theatre?

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: When was your present company formed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: Do you have a day job?

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

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

ASR: What are your interests outside the theatre?

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

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

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

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

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

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

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

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or play?

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

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

 

-30-

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

 

 

 

 

ASR’s Not-so-Random Question Time: Publicist Extraordinaire Kim Taylor

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Kim Taylor

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

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

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: When was your present company formed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…”When did Ma get a cat?”

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

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

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

KT: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

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

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

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

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

KT: Jewelry.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”— have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

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

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

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

-30-

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

 

 

ASR Not-So-Random Question Time: Can’t Stop Those Dancing Feet — Marilyn Izdebski

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Marilyn Izdebski

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

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

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

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

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

ASR: And you realized your dream?

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: When was your present company formed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: Do you have a “day job?

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

MI: Earrings!

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

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

-30-

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

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Irrepressible Singer/Actor Phillip Percy Williams

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Phillip Percy Williams

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

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

Website: www.phillippercywilliams.com

ASR: Your background?

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

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

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

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

PPW: Approximately fifteen.

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

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

ASR: What are some of your favorite musicals?

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

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

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

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance?

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

ASR: How do you relax after?

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

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

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And scene . . .

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

PPW: Cuff links. I have a substantial collection.

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

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

-30-

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

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: The Inimitable Jaime Love of Sonoma Arts Live

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Jaime Love

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

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

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

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

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

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

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

ASR: When was your present company formed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

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

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks” — have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

JL: Absolutely not.

-30-

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

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Leading Light of the San Francisco Stage, Susi Damilano

Aisle Seat Review and our readers are enjoying a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people.

Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor, this is Aisle Seat Review’s Not So Random Question Time.

***

Susi Damilano

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

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

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

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

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

Our focus is on how plays impact the audience…

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

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

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

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

ASR: When was your present company formed?

SD: We had our first show in 2003.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts underway in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?

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

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

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

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

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

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

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

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

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

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

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

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

SD: Been framed.

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

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

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

SD: Bracelets.

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

SD: None. Too big for my house.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks” — have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

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

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

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

-30-

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

 

 

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

 

Patrick Nims.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…we all had fun working on the project.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Actor, Director, & Fight Coach Extraordinaire, Steve Beecroft

Aisle Seat Review begins a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people. Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor.

***

Steve Beecroft

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

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

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

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

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

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

ASR: When was your present company formed?

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

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

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

ASR: What’s Curtain Theatre’s focus?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play?

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

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

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

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

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

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

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

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

SB:  Hmmm… I guess,

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

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

3. Have fun!!

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

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

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

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

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

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

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

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

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

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

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

SB: This one…

“How will it work?” 

“I don’t know, it’s a mystery.”

-30-

 

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

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Barry Martin and Taylor Bartolucci of Lucky Penny Productions

Aisle Seat Review begins a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people. Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor.

***

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

Website: www.luckypennynapa.com

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

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taylor: Oh gosh, way too many to count.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts underway in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barry M.:  “The Iceman Cometh.”

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play?

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

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

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

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

Taylor: “Midsummer.”

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

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

Taylor: Props. Definitely props.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

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

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

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

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

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

Barry M.: Two or three of them.

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

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

Taylor:  Hmmm. OK:

1) Everyone clean up after themselves

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

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

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

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

Barry M.: A timeshare.

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

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

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

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

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

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks” — have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

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

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

ASR: Favorite quote?

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

-30-

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

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Award Winning Director and Choreographer Carl Jordan

Carl Jordan

This week, Aisle Seat Review begins a new series of question-and-answer interviews with prominent Bay Area theater people.

Our goal is not to subject you the reader to extended portentous sermons of the guest’s views on Russian translations of lesser-known Mamet flash drama (is there such a thing?)

Too often the people who guide and make theater in the Bay Area are behind the scenes — fast-moving denizens of the curtain lines who mumble into microphones while invariably (always excepting Carl Jordan’s beret collection…) dressed head-to-toe in black.  These interviews allow you, the reader, to get to know these amazingly talented people a bit more, as…people. Offering some personal and professional insights: with a heavy dash of humor.

***

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

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

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

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

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

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

CJ: Lots.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CJ: I don’t know yet.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas?

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

ASR: Musicals?

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

ASR: Comedies?

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

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

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

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

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

CJ: L.Peter Calender

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance?

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

ASR: How do you relax after?

CJ: Libations with friends. And sleep.

ASR: If someone asked to be your apprentice and learn all that you know, what three things would you tell them are essential?

CJ: Read and read and read the script. Then listen to the actors.

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

CJ: Talking drunkenly to the actors onstage.

ASR: Do you have a day job?

CJ: I’m a licensed general contractor.

ASR: Other artistic interests?

I love the world of dance. I have degrees in dance—I started as a ballet dancer, but mostly choreographed jazz ballets. I love teaching and coaching. I’ve learned and played several instruments, and studied architecture and building design. I frequently attend museums and art shows. I go to garage sales and flea markets looking for quirky items that might be good props or set pieces. I love puppets and puppet shows, and hiking, especially on the coast. I read constantly—mostly scripts, but I love science fiction. It’s my favorite movie idiom.

ASR: Parting comment?

Theater manifests the heart and soul of our lives!

-30-

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

 

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review – What’s “Love” Got to Do with It? — by Cari Lynn Pace

Marin Theater Company presents the world premiere of Kate Cortesi’s riveting drama “Love” with a keen eye on the #MeToo movement. The play is no feminist rant; rather it is a balanced unfolding of a relationship that flashes back in time to romance, power, and inappropriateness.

It’s the present, and Penelope, launched on her own successful career, is contacted by a former co-worker friend who has charged their former boss with crossing the sexual harassment line. It’s been 15 years since Penelope has thought about her love affair and the sexual awakening she shared with her married boss, who remains her friend. Penelope is launched into soul-searching about the roles defining victim and perpetrator. It’s her moral dilemma whether to support the charges, to speak out and add her voice to the others.

This two-hour production will give rise to many conversations…

Clea Alsip does a fine job as the ingenue Penelope and R. Ward Duffy is strong and confident as her boss Otis. The stage is spare; their conversation fills the empty space with tension. They are fencing with one another, parrying and thrusting as the audience perches, watching for the next move.

“Love” is extraordinary for its abundance of nuance and moral confusion. Is any workplace attraction allowable? Is it all black and white, okay and not okay, cut and run? The playwright herself notes, “Inappropriateness could feel wonderful and then turn unsettling, and wrong.”

The sterling cast directed by Mike Donahue includes Penelope’s husband Jaime, played by Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari, with Rebecca Schweitzer as the co-worker friend Vanessa. Robert Sicular and Mari Vial-Golden each double up their supporting roles with such skill they seem to be additional characters onstage.

What will Penelope decide to do with her options to testify? Will her stalwart faith in the absolute truth trump her past youthful pleasures? If there was love, was it consensual, and will justice outdo it?

This two-hour production will give rise to many conversations. Audiences may or may not agree with Penelope’s decision, but they will understand the strength behind her reasoning.

ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionLove
Written byKate Cortesi
Directed byMike Donahu
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough Mar 29th [SUSPENDED]
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$25– $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft2/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

 

 

An Aisle Seat Review Pick! Fragile Personalities Make RVP’s “Glass Menagerie” a Powerful Production — by Cari Lynn Pace

In “The Glass Menagerie” Tennessee Williams takes a family’s disparate characters and pumps them up with tight language and shoulder-cringing situations. Although it’s a poignant glimpse into familial tension, Ross Valley Players presents this solid drama with several touches of levity.

It works splendidly. Director David Abrams notes “Williams has the humor in his script, you just have to bring it out.”  Abrams pulled extraordinary performances from familiar talents in this production.

Veteran actor Tamar Cohn is astounding as mother Amanda Wingfield, an aging and abandoned Southern belle. Cohn is simply perfect in her role. She’s a steam-roller of drive and determination, yet drifting to her flowery and flirtatious past at the slightest provocation. Cohn pulls up so many spot-on personality changes one senses her character is schizophrenic. This is Cohn at her professional best. She’s a joy to behold.

What a breath of fresh air…

Greg Crane portrays her son Tom, a warehouse worker with no tangible prospects. Tom bottles his frustration, indeed rage, at his cage within the Wingfield family. He desperately longs for escape. He enters and exits the stage from side and rear doors, restless with frustrated energy and ready to shatter. The only tether to his family is the concern he has for his older sister Laura, a slightly disabled and extremely introverted character enacted by Carolyn Arnold. The emotional string connecting sister and brother is a delicate glass filament, as only Williams can write.

When his mother badgers him about finding a suitor for sister Laura, Tom relents and brings home a dinner guest, his co-worker Jim (Jesse Lumb). Mother transforms herself into a flittering and flirtatious belle, all her hopes pinned on this prospective “gentleman caller” for her daughter. Lumb masterfully enlivens this role as the genial and friendly potential suitor, capturing the stage with his outsize confidence. What a breath of fresh air for the stale and stagnant Wingfield family!

The conflict and synergy between Laura’s fragility and Jim’s positivity provide rays of hope that lift this timeless classic far above a simple family drama. “The Glass Menagerie” is one shows you’ll not want to miss.

ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionThe Glass Menagerie
Written byTennessee Williams
Directed byDavid Abrams
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru April 5th
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.MountainPlay.org
Telephone415. 383-1100
Tickets$17-$29
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! An Extended Run for “Daddy Long Legs” — by Cari Lynn Pace

Director Michael Ross persuaded Sonoma Arts Live to shoehorn this charming musical in between their regular season productions. Lucky for them that he did. This show at the Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center, scheduled to run until March 8, 2020, has just been extended to March 15, with a few Thursday night performances added as well. There must be a reason!

“Daddy Long Legs” is the story of Jerusha Abbott (enacted by the lovely songbird Madison Genovese), a young orphan woman given an extraordinary gift of college tuition by an anonymous benefactor, Jervis Pendleton. She glimpses the tall donor (a solid role by Mischa Stephens) from a distance as he departs, casting a long shadow she tags to give the show’s name.

Photos courtesy of Sonoma Arts Live

Her only duty to this silent sponsor is to write a monthly letter chronicling her progress. It’s a one-way communication, lending Jerusha to provide both the required information and a healthy dose of imagination and curiosity in her letters.

Count on the plot lines of … Cinderella love stories for (a) satisfying ending…

As the years pass, “Daddy Long Legs” becomes more enthralled with Jerusha’s engaging letters. He concocts a plan to drop into her life to see for himself the shy young lady who spins such enthralling stories. Although he keeps his true identify hidden from Jerusha, Daddy Long Legs is inadvertently captured in her web of words.

Photos courtesy of Sonoma Arts Live

The plot is engaging and the voices seamlessly matched between Genovese and Stephens. The split-level stage designed by Koitney Carson cleverly does double duty as the benefactor’s study and the hand-me-down feel of the orphanage and college dorm.

When a potential suitor emerges in Jerusha’s life, Mr. Pendleton finds himself struggling whether to reveal his identity and his attraction to her. Count on the plot lines of countless Cinderella love stories for an expected and satisfying ending to “Daddy Long Legs.”

The three-piece band of piano, cello, and guitar is located in front of the stage, on the seating level with the audience. The music’s volume made it very difficult to hear the lyrics or fully enjoy the beautifully matched voices of Genovese and Stephens.

ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionDaddy Long Legs
Written byMusic and Lyrics by Paul Gordon

Book by John Caird
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThursdays thru Sundays until March 15th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone(866) 710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! “The Tempest” Tosses Together Storm and Shakespeare by Cari Lynn Pace

Ellen Brooks as Prospera in Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” at College of Marin

Fans of Shakespeare will delight in this multi-faceted production at the College of Marin’s James Dunn Theatre. This rarely produced play, a long one at 2 ½ hours, is marvelously delivered with costumes, magnificent stagecraft, and top-caliber acting by a mix of professionals and student actors.

The plot, so to speak, is pure Shakespeare; a mix of characters who pop in and out and are difficult to keep straight. Not to worry…there’s a story synopsis in the program. It’s still unclear just who is who, but they’re all together on this really crowded deserted island. Count on multiple royals, a cave creature, a magical mother, a blithe white spirit, and numerous nymphs with seductive songs. Once the ear grows accustomed to the Shakespearean patois, it’s all entertainment indeed.

Shakespeare… would be proud!

The stage is an outstanding oceanside storm, complete with churning waves, rain, and the sound of pounding surf designed by award-winning Ronald Krempetz. The spectacular transformation is credited to a generous contribution from Warren Lefort for a back-screen projector and LED lighting. What a magnificent addition to boost the caliber of COM’s future shows!

The drama students under the Direction of Lisa Morse are fortunate to be on stage with two local professionals. Audiences delight to watch petite Ellen Brooks masterfully command her outsize role as Prospera, with her magical staff and perfect gestures. She is matched in talent and vocal inflections by Steve Price, a much-awarded performer who completely immerses himself in every role he takes on.

Shout-outs also go to Benjamin Vasquez as Caliban the cave monster, and Daniel DeGabriele as Ariel, Prospera’s slave spirit. These two have impressive movements and solid characterizations, not to mention their unique costumes designed by Pamela Johnson.

A lovely surprise of the production is the harmonious singing of “Blessings” by the nymphs in Act II. Billie Cox is the talent behind setting music to Shakespeare’s “Dance of the Harvesters” in addition to handling the rain, surf, and other sounds for the show.

The ensemble of students and professionals acting and singing is spot-on in this show. There are moments when the cast does a stop-action pose, and it pops the eyeballs. Clearly these students have worked very hard to learn the skills they need to put on such fine performance. Shakespeare… would be proud!

ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionThe Tempest
Written byWIlliam Shakespeare
Directed byLisa Morse
Producing CompanyCollege of Marin
Production DatesFridays through Sundays until March 15, 2020
Production AddressJames Dunn Theatre,
Performing Arts Building
835 College Ave, Kentfield CA
Websitehttp://pa.marin.edu/blog/tempest
Telephone(415) 457-8811
Tickets$15 – $25
https://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4317842
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

An Aisle Seat Review Pick! “Urinetown, the Musical” a Cautionary Diversion at Spreckels — by Barry Willis

Paying to pee is a way of life for the poor and downtrodden in the fictional neighborhood of Urinetown. Managed with mendacity by water-and-waste management firm Urine Good Company, “amenities” dot the urban landscape, with admission fees so high that residents scramble all day to get enough money to relieve themselves—a high-pressure situation that foments rebellion if not resolution.

At Spreckels Performing Arts Center through March 1, “Urinetown, the Musical” celebrates many of the conceits of traditional musical theater while skewering others. The familiar plot elements—oppressive overlords, rebellious poor, star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the conflict, a desperate kidnapping—have all been exploited by playwrights for centuries.

What makes this darkly-themed show unusual is its coupling of these reliable plot elements with upbeat Broadway song-and-dance productions, and its self-conscious stance as a piece of “metatheater” that announces itself and its intentions directly to the audience through UGC’s chief enforcer Officer Lockstock (David L. Yen), whose main connection to the Urinetown residents is through the likable character of Little Sally (Denise Elia-Yen).

“Urinetown, the Musical” is tremendous production…

Theater fans of long experience will note similarities in theme, plot, characters and music with many other productions. “Urinetown” is in solid traditional territory there.

Tim Setzer shines as UGC’s evil chief executive Caldwell B. Cladwell, the “toilet tycoon,” as described by ASR critic Nicole Singley. His toady-laden office includes Senator Fipp (Michael Arbitter), a legislator doing his patriotic best to win congressional approval for a system-wide increase in toilet admission fees. Recently graduated from the world’s most expensive university, Cladwell’s beautiful daughter Hope (Julianne Thompson Bretan) is about to join her father’s management team but is taken hostage by restroom-deprived rebels. In the process, she develops sympathy for their cause—mirroring the real-world fate of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst in a 1974 kidnapping staged by would-be revolutionaries—and falls in love with their charismatic leader Bobby Strong (Joshua Bailey).

“Urinetown” cast shows class dance moves

The stark set by Eddy Hansen and Eliabeth Bazzano is the perfect venue for this musical misadventure, enhanced by projections from Chris Schloemp.

Lucas Sherman’s small orchestra is dazzling. Performances range from good to superb, with especially good efforts by Bailey and Bretan, Yen, Setzer, and Karen Pinomaki as Josephine Strong, Bobby’s devoted mother. ScharyPearl Fugitt is a standout as Urinetown rebel Soupy Sue, and as Cladwell’s secretary. Her dancing is especially enjoyable. A large and exemplary cast fills out the remaining roles.

“Urinetown” has an impressive cast!

“Urinetown, the Musical” is tremendous production—not perfect, but huge fun with a depressing message at its core: sugar-coated theatrical medicine. Yes, resources are shrinking and the population is growing. It’s not a pleasant prospect, but we can all delight in the irony as we head for the abyss.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ProductionUrinetown, the Musical
Written byMark Holman and Greg Kotis
Directed byJay Manley
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough March 1st
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$12-$36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! “Five Course Love” Serves Up Tasty Trysts — by Cari Lynn Pace

Here’s the satisfying recipe for “Five Course Love” as served up at Lucky Penny Productions in Napa: Combine three actors and five restaurant scenes. Mix in a generous batch of costume changes. Blend well with three musicians, adding headgear as desired. Toss in two dozen amusing songs using quick lyrics by Gregg Coffin. Stir well with direction by award-wining performer Heather Buck. Cook for two hours on a warm stage until tender. Serve immediately with lots of laughs. Enjoy!

Cast at work in “Five Course Love” at Lucky Penny!

This clever and witty musical debuted off-Broadway in 2005. With no signature songs or ground-breaking drama, “Five Course Love” has stayed in the wings, depending on smaller theatres to bring this frothy bit of fluff to center stage. The costumed characters haven’t changed, nor has their search for connectedness and the holy grail of love.

Delicious!

Five singing sketches feature three actors connected by diverse yet spare cafe locations. These showcase the formidable vocals and acting chops of Sarah Lundstrom, F. James Raasch, and Brian Watson. They switch roles swiftly and seamlessly, from cowboy to nerd to bandit to dominatrix to gangster, sometimes at breakneck speed. Their tried-and-true stereotypes bring laughs and smirks of empathy from the audience.

Kudos to Lucky Penny for using mikes, enabling actors to change accents and move fluidly to Staci Arriaga’s choreography on the small stage. The intimacy of this theatre-in-the-round adds to the fun.

“Five Course Love” is not a filling intellectual meal, by any stretch. It’s familiarity and frivolity, more of a pie-in-your-face kind of show, without the pie. The characters are alternately charming, raunchy, ridiculous, and quite predictable. It’s the clever lyrics that add so much spice to this meal.

The play’s final scene is the most satisfying, where the last tidbit of love is dished out. Delicious!

ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionFive Course Love
Written byGregg Coffin
Directed byHeather Buck
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough March 1st
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An Aisle Seat Review Pick! Lovely, Bold “Tiny Beautiful Things” at SF Playhouse — by Barry Willis

Cast and Crew of ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ at SF Playhouse. Director Bill English is up-center-left in jacket.

An online advice columnist discovers that she is a wellspring of wisdom and empathy in “Tiny Beautiful Things” at SF Playhouse, through March 7.

Before each performance, Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English delivers a curtain speech in which he reiterates that his company envisions their theater as an “empathy gym” where performers and audience alike get to flex their emotional muscles. The speech couldn’t be more appropriate than it is for “Tiny Beautiful Things” developed by Nia Vardalos from the autobiographical book by Cheryl Strayed.

English directs Susi Damilano as “Sugar,” the initially reluctant advice columnist, and Mark Anderson Phillips, Kina Kantor, and Jomar Tagatac as Sugar’s various correspondents, who seek guidance on everything from the intricacies of love to matters of life and death. Sugar’s no Ph.D. psychologist but simply a woman of vast personal experience—far more vast than she first understands—who digs deep to deliver heartfelt consolation and hope to her readers, often delivered with gentle humor.

Kina Kantor, Susi Damilano, Jomar Tagatac, and Mark Anderson Phillips make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches together.

Damilano is confident and sly as Sugar, who goes repeatedly to her refrigerator for refills of white wine and emotional conviction. At first, amused by her work, she soon discovers that she’s dealing with serious issues, and rises to the challenge.

… a well-deserved standing ovation.

The play’s dramatic structure is a recitation of letters, each beginning with “Dear Sugar,” spoken and acted with palpable gravitas by Damilano’s three supporting actors. Part literary fugue and part call-and-response, the recitation continues in a rolling rhythm throughout the play’s 85 minutes, reaching a crescendo when Sugar incites her readers to find love in their hearts for everything that life throws at them.

Letter Writer #3 (Jomar Tagatac) takes in Sugar’s (Susi Damilano) words of wisdom in ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ at San Francisco Playhouse.

It’s a beautiful moment, on a dreamscape of suspended metal poles (set design by Jacquelyn Scott) evocatively illuminated by lighting designer Michael Oesch. Unfortunately, its impact is diminished by an extended continuation of letters and responses, as if Vardalos couldn’t decide what to keep and what to cut. It’s a not-so-unusual theatrical circumstance of less-could-be-more with more careful editing.

Even so, “Tiny Beautiful Things” is a rare undertaking and within its limits, a sparkling gem. Author Cheryl Stayed was in the audience on opening night, and got a well-deserved standing ovation. The world could do well with more empathetic advisors like her and fewer snarky commentators.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionTiny Beautiful Things
Written byAdapted by Nia Vardalos from the book by Cheryl Strayed.

Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos.
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThrough March 7th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$35 - $125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! Cinnabar’s “Ripcord” is an Uproarious Good Time — by Barry Willis

Two widows battle for control of a room in a residential retirement center in “Ripcord” at Cinnabar Theater through February 16.

Laura Jorgensen and Kate Brickley star as combative roommates Abby and Marilyn, respectively, in David Lindsay-Abaire’s elegantly conceived comedy. Author of “Good People,” “Rabbit Hole,” and many other excellent plays, Lindsay-Abaire is at the top of his game in this “Odd Couple”-inspired story of a cranky loner (Abby) and her attempt to drive out her ceaselessly upbeat roomie.

With momentum like a speeding truck, the script’s inherently compelling pacing is made more so under the brilliant direction of James Pelican, who gets his talented six-member cast to hit every beat at precisely the right moment. It’s one hilarious ride, with moments of melancholy as texture and spice.

…what may prove to be one of the most uproarious comedies this season!

Jorgensen and Brickley are perfectly cast, supported by Kyle Stoner as Scotty, the long-suffering orderly who brings them their meals and medications and tries his best to keep the two from each other’s throats. Sarah McKeregan and Chad Yarish are superb—and superbly funny—as Marilyn’s daughter Colleen and son-in-law Derek, among other roles, while the versatile John Browning appears as each woman’s adult son, a bit of casting that may induce confusion in some viewers. Even so, the cast of “Ripcord” is among the most evenly-balanced to appear onstage so far this year.

Laura Jorgensen and Kate Brickley – Photo courtesy of Eric Chazankin.

Scenic designer Joseph Elwick’s quick-change sets help propel the story, which includes a sky-diving adventure—hence, the title—that’s part of Abby and Marilyn’s continually-escalating series of challenges to each other. Will they go down fighting or learn to live not-so-happily ever after? Closing weekend will reveal all to those quick enough and lucky enough to score tickets for what may prove to be one of the most uproarious comedies this season.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionRipcord
Written byDavid Lindsay-Abaire
Directed byJames Pelican
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Feb. 16th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$20 – $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

 

An ASR Theater Review: Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” a Short Snooze at ACT – by Barry Willis

Tony Hale as Guy in “Wakey, Wakey” at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater.

A dying man lectures the audience on the wonders of life in Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” at the American Conservatory Theater, through February 16.

Former TV star Tony Hale (“Arrested Development,” “Veep”) and veteran actress Kathryn Smith-McGlynn bring nuance and conviction to a muddled script directed by Anne Kauffman, its title not a reference to “woke culture” but apparently an admonition to be alert and conscious and rejoice in all that life has to offer including its inherent contradictions and dead-ends.

The piece opens with Hale’s character Guy lying half-clad on the stage and proceeds to having him engage in an addled monologue in his pajamas while sitting in a wheelchair. Some of his ramblings are absurd observations, a few are poignant remembrances, but most are simply non sequiturs strung end-to-end, all accompanied by old home movies and odd bits of eye candy projected on a huge screen behind him, ostensibly controlled by a small remote with which he continually fumbles. The jumble of letters and misspelled words in the projections  is a recurring gambit, perhaps symbolic of the loss of cognition suffered by those nearing the end of their tenure on earth—or perhaps not so symbolic, and simply  comedic distractions inserted by the playwright to punch up the entertainment value.

This piece has potential…but need(s) much more development to justify putting on such an esteemed stage as ACT’s.

Such confusion is rampant throughout the 80 minutes of “Wakey, Wakey,” a piece of so-called “metatheater” that attempts to confound many of the traditions of live theater. Eno is a trendy playwright whose “The Realistic Joneses” has been performed by many companies and has been generally well-received. His “Middletown” is a pointless exercise in attempting to update Thorton Wilder’s classic “Our Town.”  “Wakey, Wakey” continues the pointlessness, right up to and including the moment when Guy expires, launching a deluge of bright balloons and celebratory music.

Eno may have drawn inspiration from Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist who, while dying of pancreatic cancer, delivered motivational talks about achieving childhood dreams. The script’s amateur construction aside, Hale does a marvelous job holding the attention of the audience and conveying his character’s constantly mutating state of energy and awareness.

Kathryn Smith-McGlynn as Lisa (left) and Tony Hale as Guy in “Wakey, Wakey” at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater.

Smith-McGlynn is tremendously confident and sensitive as hospice nurse Lisa, who comes in late to check on him. She also appears as a community college substitute teacher in the opening sketch “The Substitution,” in which Eno conflates a cultural history lesson with driver’s education. This short piece has potential, as does “Wakey, Wakey,” but both of them need much more development to justify putting them on such an esteemed stage as ACT’s.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionWakey, Wakey
Written byWIll Eno
Directed byAnne Kauffman
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough Feb 16th
Production AddressAmerican Conservatory Theater, Geary Theater
415 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$15 – $110
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script2/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

 

An Aisle Seat Review: “Our Town” Falls Flat at NTC – by Nicole Singley

With its modest set and simple, unassuming premise, “Our Town” aims to celebrate the magic of the mundane, contemplating the ordinary, everyday moments we too often take for granted. Revolutionary when it debuted in 1938, Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama has since become an enduring staple of American theater. Under Michael Barr’s direction, this three-act classic takes the stage at Novato Theater Company through February 16th.

We open with a welcome from the Stage Manager (Christine Macomber), who introduces us to the small New Hampshire town of Grover’s Corners, and continues to serve as our guide and sometimes-narrator throughout. We meet the town doctor and the milkman, watch as families gather ‘round their kitchen tables, and eavesdrop on schoolkids discussing their homework. Wilder’s script spans over a decade of love, loss, and run-of-the-mill moments in the lives of the townspeople. At the center of it all are George and Emily (Bryan Munar and Nicole Thordsen), the all-American boy and girl next door, who we encounter first as childhood friends, again as awkward teenagers stumbling into the early stages of love, and later as bride and groom, hurdling into adulthood ‘til death do they part.

Beautifully written and subtly profound in its frank depiction of normal people living unremarkable lives, its power lies not in what happens – as very little, in fact, actually does – but in the authenticity of its characters and the relatability of their life experiences. “Our Town” could be any town, anywhere at any time, the residents as familiar as our own friends and neighbors. It’s perhaps the realization of our shared humanity, and the quiet beauty and impermanence of each little moment, that beckons us to appreciate the here-and-now before it slips through our fingers.

. . . an ever-haunting tribute to the small, extraordinary moments that comprise an ordinary life.”

This show has the potential to be powerful and poignant – possibly transcendent – in the hands of the right cast and director. NTC’s production, however, comes up lacking in sincerity, bordering on tedious and boring. Much of the acting is stiff and unnatural, the lines flat and devoid of real emotion, and where nuance and depth of feeling are needed, there is little to be found. Without believable characters and relationships, their interactions become trivial and uncompelling.

Munar and Thordsen (Photo Credit: Fred Deneau)

Arguably the most damaging weak link in this production, the love story between George and Emily is utterly unconvincing. Munar’s George is sweet but overly shy and nervous, possessing little charm and none of the archetypal trappings of a school class president and star baseball player. There is no palpable chemistry between him and Thordsen, and none of the flirtatious tension or playfulness that often accompanies a budding young romance. Their love is at the heart of “Our Town,” and it needs to feel genuine in order to effectively hold our interest, arouse our compassion, and convey the full weight and meaning of Wilder’s message. Instead, it just feels flat and forced.

Janice Deneau and Mary Weinberg have done well with costume choices. Sparse scenic design is at the playwright’s instruction, and it’s reasonably well executed here by local designer and builder Michael Walraven. The production suffers, however, from the nearly constant, distracting boom and echo of heavy footsteps clomping across the hollow stage, often making it terribly difficult to hear and follow the actors’ lines.

On the whole, the ensemble puts forth a good effort. Macomber makes an excellent narrator, and Jennifer Reimer is convincing as wife and mother, Mrs. Gibbs. What’s missing is the sense that some key players are fully at home in their roles. Perhaps a few more performances will help them find their groove. There is great potential here to ramp up the emotional impact. “Our Town” remains deeply relevant despite its age, and an ever-haunting tribute to the small, extraordinary moments that comprise an ordinary life.

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionOur Town
Written byThornton Wilder
Directed byMichael Barr
Producing CompanyNovato Theater Company
Production DatesThrough February 16th
Production AddressNovato Theater Company
5420 Nave Drive, Novato 94949
WebsiteNovatoTheaterCompany.org
Telephone(415) 883-4498
Tickets$15 – $27
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance3/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

An Aisle Seat Review: Past and Present Collide in MTC’s “Noura” – by Barry Willis

David and Ibrahim (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne)

An Iraqi immigrant family finds a Christmas holiday gathering and promise of a bright future sullied by the momentum of the past in Heather Raffo’s “Noura,” at Marin Theatre Company through February 9. 

Escapees from the destroyed city of Mosul, the family of three—Noura, her husband Tareq, and their young son Yazen—share a spacious New York City apartment, one decorated with an oversized Christmas tree but little else. Their space (set design by Adam Rigg) has the disheveled, semi-organized look of a temporary refugee camp, a reflection of Noura’s sense of disconnectedness despite the fact that her family has been in the US eight years, and has gained American citizenship and Anglicized names so that they might be better assimilated. Easier said than achieved, as this fascinating if uneven production proves over the course of its approximately ninety minutes.

The Christmas season is especially difficult for Noura (Denmo Ibrahim), who longs for the life she knew in her home city—family, friends, neighbors of multiple ethnicities and religions— an extended community that was destroyed in the wake of the US invasion. Tareq (Mattico David) is an emergency room physician who seems pretty much Americanized until confronted by the arrival of a holiday visitor, Maryam (Maya Nazzal), a fellow refugee they’ve been sponsoring who shares complicated ties to their past lives in Mosul. Her impending arrival is a source of anxiety for Noura as she makes preparations. A physics student in California, young Maryam hopes to land a job as a weapons designer with the US Department of Defense.  

Ibrahim beautifully portrays her character’s abiding sense of loss and ambiguity . . .”

Maryam’s aspirations don’t seem to have any effect on Noura and Tareq, nor on their doctor friend Rafa’a (Abraham Makany), also an exile from Mosul, but the fact that she is unmarried and pregnant—both by choice—throws Tareq into a tailspin. An independent young woman with no apparent need for a man is a situation he simply can’t cope with: thousands of years of macho Arab culture upended by one modern independent feminist, resounding proof that they’ve left the old world behind. The emotional repercussions from this and other conflicts resonate off the stage and into the audience as the four adults and one boy (Valentino Herrera) struggle to make the holiday a pleasant one. 

The Cast of MTC’s “Noura” (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne)

All four adult actors are excellent. Ibrahim and David in particular are able to mine emotional nuances that actors with lesser skills might not manage. Some of their dramatic expertise must certainly be the work of director Kate Bergstrom, but there are holes in the story that detract from its intended effect. Why, for example, do these Iraqi-Americans not raise even one word of dismay over Maryam’s stated career agenda, when their entire country was demolished by high-tech weaponry and the medieval mentality behind it? Tareq must make a decent income from his emergency room work, but they still can’t afford some basic furniture? Then there are Noura’s recurring smoke-filled reveries of the life she once knew, with no counterbalancing embrace of the future’s potential. 

Noura lives in limbo between then and now, unable to let go and unwilling to move on. It’s a heartbreaking situation, the immigrant’s plight, one not understood by Americans intent on “reaching closure” as quickly and painlessly as possible. Ibrahim beautifully portrays her character’s abiding sense of loss and ambiguity, repeated several times with minor variations in the extended final scene. Playwright Raffo might better have chosen one powerful statement and let the curtain fall, rather than hammer the audience with what they’ve already learned is Noura’s unhappy truth. Not that the story needs to be tied up in a tidy little bundle of happy-ever-afterness, but a clear ending would enhance the play’s impact.

Barry Willis is the Executive Editor at Aisle Seat Review, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionNoura
Written byHeather Raffo
Directed byKate Bergstrom
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough February 9th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$25 – $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! Quirky, Wonderful “Heisenberg” at Left Edge Theatre – by Barry Willis

Rider and Craven (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

A seemingly chance encounter between a mature London butcher and a younger woman prompts  unpredictable developments in Simon Stephens’s “Heisenberg,” at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through February 2.

Directed by Carla Spindt, the two-actor, six-scene piece takes its name from German physicist Werner Heisenberg, whose famous “uncertainty principle” means, in its largest sense, that we can’t really be sure about what we think we know. It opens with Alex (John Craven) sitting calmly on a park bench when quite unbidden, Georgie (Shannon Rider) approaches and kisses him on the neck—the first time they’ve met. She introduces herself and gushes almost uncontrollably while he looks on befuddled—clearly this is a “red flag” moment but he plays along, listening attentively and politely without offering encouragement. 

It’s an extremely odd first encounter. In the second one, having done some minor detective work via Google, she’s tracked him down at his butcher shop, and comes on even stronger, this time with a completely different tale about who she is and why she’s interested in him. Amused and flattered by the unexpected attention, he’s again receptive but does not encourage. Craven maintains his character’s distance throughout, a mix of caution and curiosity, while the energetic Rider pours out ever-more-fanciful tales that culminate in a confession that she hasn’t seen her adult son in years and needs to go to America to find him.

. . . a fascinating dance, a true theatrical pas de deux.”

Craven and Rider (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

As the two become friendlier, her various veils of hyperactive identity fall away but it’s still never clear to Alex or the audience (or possibly to Georgie herself) which part of her is real and which is not—a maddening and very funny scenario. Having accepted that Georgie is off-kilter but probably harmless, Alex makes his peace with the situation’s unpredictability and goes along for what proves to be a lovely ride. It’s a fascinating dance, a true theatrical pas de deux.

Both of them veteran performers, Craven and Rider are fully committed to this delightfully ambiguous yet somehow totally believable piece of magical realism—Craven the embodiment of fascinated reticence, Rider a whirlwind of imaginative insistence. The drama and the comedy are equally enhanced by sound designer Joe Winkler’s lovely tango music and Chris Schloemp’s marvelous projections on an elegant set by Argo Thompson.  

Is the May/December relationship between Georgie and Alex believable? Is the ambiguity of their story plausible? Yes. No. Maybe. In a universe of infinite outcomes, everything is possible—perhaps even perfect. That’s the beguiling beauty of “Heisenberg.”

Barry Willis is the Executive Editor at Aisle Seat Review, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionHeisenberg
Written bySimon Stephens
Directed byCarla Spindt
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough February 2nd
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$15-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An Aisle Seat Review: “Buddy” A Rocking Good Time at 6th Street – by Barry Willis

Kyle Jurrasic as Buddy Holly (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

1950s musical icon Buddy Holly had a short but prolific career. With 12 top 100 hits within three years, his sweet lyrics and catchy rhythms proved to have enduring influence on many artists that followed, including the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

Now in an extended run through February 16 at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse, “Buddy—The Buddy Holly Story” follows his meteoric rise from the country music scene in Lubbock, Texas, to New York City and elsewhere—including his final performance in Clearlake, Iowa before a plane crash that took his life and those of fellow performers Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. Holly was only 22 and might have gone on to a long illustrious career, but the catalog he left behind is still a source of inspiration and joy.

The show is a “jukebox musical”—one that conveys the biographical facts interspersed with Holly’s many hits. Bay Area newcomer Kyle Jurrasic is excellent as Holly, capturing his signature look, song styling, and guitar playing. That’s to be expected of an actor who’s played the role multiple times. Director D.J. Salisbury also has extensive experience with the show, having directed and/or choreographed seven previous productions.

The show’s infectious energy carries it along beautifully…”

The large cast is generally tremendous, especially Seth Dahlgren as the Big Bopper, Marc Assad as Valens, and Charlie Whitaker as Maria Elena Santiago, Holly’s wife. Husband-and-wife team John and Jennifer Bannister are superb in multiple roles, while music-and-dance numbers are handled adroitly by triple-threat Trevor Hoffman with Selena Elize Flores and Jennifer Barnaba. Nick Ambrosio is comically delightful as Jerry Allison, Holly’s drummer.

Opening night was marred by a few technical glitches—what the heck was a battery-powered transmitter doing attached to a 1950s guitar?—but that didn’t seem to bother the sold-out crowd clearly assembled to revel in the music, delivered with gusto and authenticity over the course of nearly two-and-a-half hours. The show’s infectious energy carries it along beautifully, but as has been true for several recent 6th Street productions, the set is minimal—in this case little more than three pairs of flats decorated with neo-50s graphics, that serve as everything from office walls to elevator doors. Production values are otherwise fairly high—costumes, lighting, and sound. The skimpy set is all that holds this show back from a higher rating, but it may not be a concern for the many Buddy Holly fans likely to buy tickets.

Barry Willis is the Executive Editor at Aisle Seat Review, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionBuddy—The Buddy Holly Story
Written byAlan Janes
Directed byD. J. Salisbury
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough February 16th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$35 – $48
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

ASR’s Year in Review: Our “Best of the Best” from 2019 – by Nicole Singley and Barry Willis

Better late than never, the old adage has it. Here (in no particular order) are some memorable productions from last season, a year full of four- and five-star achievements.

The Jungle (Curran Theatre): San Francisco’s renovated Curran Theatre was re-renovated for an immersive recreation of a 2016 crisis in a refugee camp in Calais, France. A huge and hugely talented multi-ethnic cast made this show last season’s most profound and moving theatrical experience. (BW)

After Miss Julie (Main Stage West): Ilana Niernberger and Sam Coughlin paired up for a thrilling pas de deux in Patrick Marber’s evocative spin on “Miss Julie,” transplanting Strindberg’s classic story to a summer night in 1945. A stunning set, great lighting, and white-hot performances brought class and erotic tensions to a boil, culminating in a seriously steamy tango scene that won’t be soon forgotten. (NS)

Rocky Horror Show (Marin Musical Theatre Company): MMTC took this Halloween favorite far over the top at the San Anselmo Playhouse, thanks to stunning efforts by Jake Gale, Nelson Brown, Dani Innocenti-Beem, Pearl Fugit and many others. (BW)

Barbecue Apocalypse (Spreckels): The laughs were served well-done in this quirky comedy, thanks to a witty script marinated in millennial-centric humor and a talented ensemble. Clever costumes, strong technical work, and excellent casting proved that all it takes to survive the end of days is a little raccoon meat and some serious comic relief. (NS)

Romeo and Juliet (Throckmorton): Mill Valley’s Throckmorton Theatre and the streets around it became Verona, Italy, in a sweetly evocative, imaginative, and fully immersive production of Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy. (BW)

Sex with Strangers (Left Edge Theatre): Left Edge Theatre turned up the heat in “Sex with Strangers,” a seductive modern romance that broaches big questions about love, ambition, and the price of success in the digital era. Dean Linnard and Sandra Ish brought the story’s unlikely couple to life with electric chemistry and powerful, nuanced performances. (NS)

Incidents in the Wicked Life of Moll Flanders (Ross Valley Players): RVP gambled and won with Jennifer LeBlanc’s adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel. Amber Collins Crane stole the show as the lead in a compelling tale about a beautiful, quick-witted woman who rose from miserable circumstances to respectability through petty crime, stealth, charm, and unusually good luck. (BW)

Drumming with Anubis (Left Edge Theatre): Left Edge Theatre invited us along to the Neo-Heathen Male Bonding and Drumming Society’s annual campout, where a group of aging death metal fans communes in the desert to beat their bongos. Things got a little dark, a lot hilarious, and surprisingly touching when the Egyptian god of death crashed the party. Local playwright David Templeton’s brilliant new show earned a 5-star reception, featuring a phenomenal cast and beautiful scenic design. (NS)

How I Learned What I Learned (Marin Theatre Company): Director Margo Hall coaxed a tremendous performance from Steven Anthony Jones, who brought grandfatherly wit and wisdom to the role of playwright August Wilson. A master class in story-telling. (BW)

Faceless (6th Street Playhouse): Former artistic director Craig A. Miller returned to helm this riveting courtroom drama about an American teenager caught running away to join her internet boyfriend in ISIS. Razor-sharp dialogue and powerhouse performances made for an intense and memorable experience in 6th Street’s intimate studio theater. (NS)

The Year of Magical Thinking (Aurora Theatre Company): Stacy Ross glowed in a masterly solo recital of Joan Didion’s play from her book of the same name. (BW)

Home (Berkeley Repertory Theatre): In this stunning piece of performance art by Geoff Sobelle, audiences watched a two-story house materialize from the shadows of an empty stage as if by magic. A spectacle of epic proportions, this visual feast reminded theatergoers that a house is just a space in which we come together to make a home. (NS)

Fully Committed (6th Street Playhouse): Patrick Varner channeled 40-some characters in his hilarious one-man depiction of a scheduling manager at his wits’ end in a high-end NYC restaurant, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse. (BW)

Merman’s Apprentice (Sonoma Arts Live): Daniela Innocenti-Beem brought Broadway legend Ethel Merman back to the stage with a larger-than-life performance in this sparkling world premiere, brimming with catchy tunes and colorful humor. Innocenti-Beem and teenaged costar Emma Sutherland boast some serious pipes, which made this charming new musical all the more fun. (NS)

Mother of the Maid (Marin Theatre Company): A mother’s love and devotion were never so well depicted as in this lovely, heart-rending piece about Joan of Arc’s mother Isabelle (Sherman Fracher). (BW)

Eureka Day (Spreckels): Laughter proved contagious in Jonathan Spector’s whip-smart “Eureka Day,” pitting parents at a Berkeley charter school against each other in the wake of a mumps outbreak. An all-star cast, elaborate set design, and top-notch technical work combined to make this a 5-star production. (NS)

Cabaret (San Francisco Playhouse and Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions): Both of these productions were excellent and amazing versions of this dazzling but starkly disturbing cautionary tale. (BW) 

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Spreckels): Theatergoers were dazzled by this cleverly written and superbly acted continuation of Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice, containing everything an Austenesque story should: delicious drama, a heartwarming romance, and an abundance of humor and witPitch-perfect direction and exemplary casting made “Miss Bennet” the ultimate holiday treat. (NS)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Curran Theatre): Nonstop high-intensity theatrical magic is the only way to describe this extravagant production, running into next July. (BW)

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (Spreckels): Hilarity ensued in this madcap musical about a man clawing his way to the top of the family tree. Tim Setzer stole the show as all nine members of the D’Ysquith family, all of whom meet their ends in some of the most creative and comical ways imaginable. Excellent ensemble work, cute choreography, and clever projections made this one killer production. (NS)

Barry Willis is the Executive Editor at Aisle Seat Review, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! Transcendence Broadway Holiday Spectacular 2019 by Cari Lynn Pace

Transcendence got the “Spectacular” name right – this show is an amazing celebration. The cadre of 19 good-looking expats from Broadway and LA blockbuster musicals rocked the Sonoma stage and travels to the Napa stage with this annual show. They mix it up with dancing (from ballet to tap), singing (from touching solos to majestic choruses) and 100% joyful energy.

Done in two acts, Transcendence talents perform holiday favorites along with signature pieces from eight classic musicals in the first half. Songs include all faiths, with “O Holy Night” and “Sabbath Prayer” beautifully juxtaposed on a two-level set.

Photo by Mimi Carroll.

Act II flashes back to carols and seasonal songs over the ages, punched up by high-energy creative choreography by Tony Gonzalez, who also directs. The talented 10-piece band under Susan Draus’s baton had a blast strutting their stuff, with a few musicians sharing the limelight with the dancers.

All ages rushed to their feet for a standing ovation…

The show provokes lots of laughter. There’s an amusing role reversal when Micki Weiner and Colin Campbell McAdoo sing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” More hilarity when five handsome guys scruff about, singing “I’m Getting’ Nuttin’ for Christmas.”

Tony Gonzalez, a veteran Transcendence member, deserves a shout out for the impressive flow of the show, so well varied in pace and volume. Ten cast members rocked the house with “Light Sings”, building up a tremendous crescendo of voices to thunderous applause. Just when you think it can’t get any more dynamic, the spotlight hits David R. Gordon with his guitar on center stage. He practically whispers his poignant solo “Let There be Peace on Earth” as the audience holds their breath. Not a pin was dropped.

Photo by Ray Martel.

All ages rushed to their feet for a standing ovation as the finale ended and the performers took their bows. Transcendence Broadway Holiday Spectacular is a power-packed show, exuberant entertainment at its festive best.

 

ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionBroadway Holiday Spectacular 2019
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed byTony Gonzalez
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesDecember 14-15, 2019
Production AddressLincoln Theater
100 California Drive
Yountville, CA 94599
Websitehttps://transcendencetheatre.org/
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$39-$129
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! A Christmas Story – The Musical by Cari Lynn Pace

This is the heart-warming story of Ralphie, the 9-year old boy who desperately wants a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas and fantasizes how to convince his parents and Santa to grant his wish.This stage play adds musical pieces to enhance the nostalgic and classic comedy, without losing the original’s momentum or warmth.

Larry Williams directs, or more accurately corrals, nearly a dozen kids and a handful of adults from many Bay Area theatres to present this show. It’s an amazing undertaking that overflows the small Sonoma Arts Live stage with youthful energy and authenticity. It’s a good thing Williams is a veteran actor and director. He knows how to get the best performances out of a large cast of 21 diverse ages who act, sing, and dance.

Worth the effort for this holiday treat!

Ralphie, acted and sung by Tuolumne Bunter, is a standout. This 10-year old’s gestures and facial expressions are far beyond his years. The program notes he cut off 18 inches of his hair to play the part…quite the sacrifice!

Where did these youngsters get their talent? Little brother Randy, played by Joseph Atchley, is so tiny he hides beneath the kitchen sink, to the great amusement of the audience. There’s a bully (perfectly cast in Ty Schoeningh) and his sidekick (Mario Alioto) who terrorize the other kids from their class. Every costumed youth stays solidly in character to deliver authenticity, and pure enjoyment for the audience.

Their teacher Miss Shields (Scharypearl Fugitt) gives an over-the-top performance as a lovesick spinster, including a tap dance with young Mario Alioto. She has the audience chuckling as she sings “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out,” the phrase adults use to thwart Ralphie’s wish.

Ralphie has an adult alter ego who narrates the youngster’s ever-hopeful story in flashback. George Bereschik does an admirable job in his task providing the glue to hold the scenes together. The cast’s adults, including Morgan Harrington and Rick Love (as Mom and “The Old Man”) had their work cut out for them lest they be upstaged by the many talented wunderkinds.

“A Christmas Story” is suitable for all ages, and particularly youngsters who may not be familiar with live theatre. You may have to hustle to get tickets as the show is a winner and the theatre is small. Worth the effort for this holiday treat!

ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionA Christmas Story – The Musical
Written byJoseph Robinette, based on Jean Shepard’s book
Directed byLarry Williams
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThursdays thru Sundays until December 22, 2019
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone(866) 710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! “Harry Potter” a Mind-Blower at the Curran by Barry Willis

Unlimited budgets can yield miracles. Especially in theater. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” at the Curran through July 12, is one of those miracles.

And yes, the July 12 closing date is correct—a six-month run! The large-capacity Curran (nearly 1700 seats) was closed for a couple of years for a massive renovation, only to have some of the new seating and carpeting removed to build out the realistic refugee camp for last spring’s fantastic production of “The Jungle.” It’s been redecorated again—this time with carpeting and fabric wall coverings embellished with the Hogwarts logo.

The unlimited budget is apparent both the moment you step into the theater and the moment the curtain rises for Part One, which manages to pack in more theatrical illusions than any dozen blockbuster shows in Las Vegas, including characters that step out of seemingly solid walls, or seemingly solid walls that absorb characters the way a sponge draws water, characters that instantly morph into other characters, characters that vanish only to reappear swimming in the sky, characters that emerge and exit through a burning fireplace, ghostly spirits that hover above the audience, and graffiti that somehow appears throughout the theater’s huge ceiling, like a celestial pattern in an observatory. Then there’s the amazing choreography of swirling capes and their disappearing owners (Steven Hoggett, movement director). Those are a few highlights.

…It’s a wild adventure.

The story by J.K.Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany has the now-adult Harry Potter (John Skelley) toiling away as a wizard in the Ministry of Magic, and about to send his son Albus (Benjamin Papac) off to school at his alma mater, where Albus meets Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger), a boy his age who’s the son of dark lord Draco Malfoy (Lucas Hall).

The two of them form an uneasy but solid friendship and are soon continuing the struggle against the evil Lord Voldemort (Andrew Long) and his offspring. It’s a wild adventure. The fanciful, quick-moving, and action-packed tale consumes nearly two-and-a-half hours and will keep you riveted to your seat the entire time. It’s a mind-blowing, all-consuming production populated by four or five dozen ace performers.

Among the amazing factoids around this show are stories of the two young actors who so magnificently embody Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is reputedly Papac’s first professional stage acting gig, and Steiger’s prior experience includes a Shakespeare festival in Scranton, Pennsylvania. They nonetheless meet the world-class challenge of what must be an exhausting, demanding production, including Saturday and Sunday performances that include both Part One and Part Two, where the two boys and their Hogwarts associates meet Voldemort’s daughter for a final showdown.

Should your time or budget restrict you to seeing only Part One or Part Two, note that Part One is the more compelling of the two, and more spectacle-intensive. Real Potterites, of course, will want to see both, but casual visitors will likely enjoy the first one more. Part Two’s extensive exposition and lengthy dialog will be better suited for those who’ve read all the books and seen all the films.

Casual theatergoers not in the Potter camp would do well to read up on the mythology before the show—a brief synopsis of which is included in the playbill. Even those who don’t know Harry Potter from Harry Houdini will be astounded by this production. For true believers—they are legion—it’s a religious experience.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ProductionHarry Potter and the Cursed Child
Written byJ.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pakek and Justin Paul
Directed byJohn Tiffany
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesJuly 12th
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$59 – $289
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

An Aisle Seat Review Theater PICK! “Sound of Music” Climbs Every Mountain (almost) at SSU by Barry Willis

One of the most beloved musicals of all time is enjoying a sumptuous revival at Sonoma State University’s capacious Evert B. Person Theatre through December 8.

With its own theater facilities still under renovation, the Santa Rosa Junior College Theater Arts department has teamed up with its counterpart at Sonoma State University to put on a hugely ambitious and mostly successful production of “The Sound of Music,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic about the Austrian von Trapp family and their escape from Nazi oppression shortly after the Germans annexed their country. It’s also, of course, the story of Maria Rainer (Arianna LaMark), the perpetually upbeat would-be nun who becomes governess to the seven von Trapp children, and ultimately, the wife of their widowed father, Captain von Trapp (Michael Coury Murdock).

… …a wonderfully engaging performance… …

The show is rampant with tunes that won instant popularity and continue to be favorites today: “The Sound of Music,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “How Can Love Survive?,” and “Climb Every Mountain,” all of them performed brilliantly by a huge cast on a huge stage, backed by a superb ten-piece orchestra led by music director Janis Dunsun Wilson. Everything about this show is enormous, from the steeply-raked large-capacity Person Theatre to the fantastically oversized stage set and towering backdrop on which is projected an image of the Matterhorn as it looks at various times of day and night—set and projection design by Peter Crompton.

Director Laura Downing-Lee has coaxed a wonderfully engaging performance from her cast of nearly three dozen performers, all of whom deliver without a bobble. Vocal performances are tremendous—LaMark and Murdock excel here—and the acting is almost as good, with the best performances given by Heather Buck as Elsa Schrader and Crystal McDougall as Mother Abbess. LaMark wins hearts with “The Sound of Music,” “My Favorite Things,” and several other songs, while Murdock prompts tears with his treatment of “Edelweiss” in the penultimate scene. Madigan Love is excellent as Liesl, the oldest of the von Trapp brood, although her handling of the guitar makes it appear as if she’s just discovered the instrument.

There are a couple of unfortunate glitches that detract from the pervasive magic, especially the fact that the backdrop isn’t stretched tight enough to avoid billowing. When it does, the Matterhorn appears to be breathing. A bit of a letdown comes at the end, when the von Trapps decide to strike out on foot through the mountains to Switzerland. Downing-Lee wisely has them tackle the steep stairs out of the theater—in the dark, as must have happened in real life—but a bit of subdued lighting on them as they climb would heighten the drama. The same is true when they reach the top and look back at their home. Instead of simply standing there in the dark then leaving through an “Exit” door, they might linger for a moment behind a bit of set indicating that they’ve reached Switzerland and freedom.

But those are small suggestions intended only to take this already tremendous production one notch higher. Even without them, it’s guaranteed to please. “The Sound of Music” is among the greatest feel-good shows of all time; SRJC’s affordable tickets make this version an absolute bargain.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ProductionThe Sound of Music
Written byBook by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse

Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed byLaura Downing-Lee
Producing CompanySanta Rosa Junior College Theatre Arts Deptment in conjunction with Sonoma State University
Production DatesThrough December 8th
Production AddressEvert B. Person Theater at Sonoma State University

1801 E. Cotati Ave.

Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitetheatrearts.santarosa.edu
Telephone707-527-4307
Tickets$15-$25
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

An ASR Theatre Review: “The Seafarer” a Rough Voyage at Main Stage West by Barry Willis

The stereotypical Irish affinity for alcohol, self-delusion, and self-defeat gets fully exercised in Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer,” at Main Stage West through December 21.

It’s Christmas eve, 2007, in a shabby residence (set design by director David Lear) in a small coastal town north of Dublin. Four buddies have gathered for a night of blarney, heavy drinking, and card games, with a fifth guest named Mr. Lockhart (Keith Baker) who may or may not be the devil incarnate. The four friends—Nicky, Richard, Ivan, and Sharky (Anthony Abate, John Craven, Kevin Bordi, and Edward McCloud, respectively)—spend the entire first act getting hammered and regaling each other with long-winded and elaborate tales about very little. It’s a long setup.

…a stunning ensemble effort by five extremely talented actors.

In the second act, they get down to business with a poker game in which they bluff not only about the cards they hold but about their generally miserable existences—bluffing exacerbated by their sharing a treasured bottle of high-octane liquor, as the financial and psychological stakes rise.

The stakes reach a fever pitch during a lull in the game—with the other three out of the room, Mr. Lockhart torments Sharky with a hideously frightening description of eternal damnation. Then they reunite around the table for a few final rounds of cards, in which their true characters are revealed to be as empty as their pockets. None of them are likable—Nicky, for example, admits that he has only thirty-five euros to last until January, and that he ought to be at home with his wife and kids, but he can’t resist gambling more than he has on one last desperate hand. Ivan likewise wrestles with how he’s going to explain his absence from home. Richard, Sharky’s brother and literally a blind drunk, takes great delight in tormenting his friends, as he has throughout the evening.

Altogether, it’s an unpleasant story about unlikeable losers, not one that would normally earn a recommendation, but it’s a stunning ensemble effort by five extremely talented actors. All are 100% committed to their characters and 100% committed to telling McPherson’s tale as well as it can be told. In that sense, “The Seafarer” is an exemplary production—a master class for aspiring actors, but not the sort of production that ordinary theatergoers will gush about to friends. If you’re seeking something to brighten your day or a tune to whistle on the way home, this isn’t it.

Is it possible to beat the devil at his own game? Is it possible to beat the devil that resides in every man’s heart? McPherson, a reformed alcoholic himself, implies that it is, perhaps even accidentally. Brave theatergoers with a tolerance for the dark side of humanity may wish to find out for themselves.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ProductionSeafarer
Written byConor McPherson
Directed byDavid Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Dec. 21st
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$0 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

 

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! Explosive Laughs in “Escanaba” at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

The Cast of “Escanaba in da Moonlight” (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

Alien encounters, porcupine piss, and a troop of whiskey-swilling women armed with hunting rifles. These are either the makings of a really strange nightmare or a recipe for comic gold. Left Edge Theatre proves the latter with their outrageously funny production of Jeff Daniels’s “Escanaba in da Moonlight,” playing in Santa Rosa through December 15th.

It’s the eve of deer-hunting season in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the Soady clan has gathered in the family cabin to continue an annual tradition steeped in generations of folklore and a whole lot of booze. But this year, things are different. For daughter Ruby (Paige Picard), the stakes have never been higher. She’s the only Soady who has yet to bag a buck, and if she can’t pull it off this season, she’ll break an embarrassing family record.

Willing to try anything and determined to succeed, Ruby’s packed some questionable dinner fare in place of the usual “pasties.” It would be wrong to give too much away, but suffice it to say that things only get weirder and wilder. It’s a strange ride full of fun surprises, hell-raising hilarity, and one especially memorable scene that nearly brought the opening-weekend audience to tears.

This one’s guaranteed to leave you smiling . . .”

Director Argo Thompson puts a refreshing spin on this originally male-dominated show with an all-female ensemble, and thanks to excellent casting, it works beautifully. Strong chemistry between the Soady gals and pitch-perfect delivery make the whole thing absurdly enjoyable.

Parrott-Thomas and Picard (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

Sandra Ish is the ideal fit for tough-as-nails matriarch, Alberta, whose no-nonsense narration helps us find our footing in a land where the locals speak their own language and march to a very different drum. Chandler Parrott-Thomas is a riot as hotshot hunter Remy, whose superstition runs so deep she’s been sporting the same sweat-soaked lucky shirt each year since childhood. She and Picard evoke a comfortable familiarity that makes them believable as sisters, striking the right balance between cutthroat rivalry and abiding love.

Kalember as “The Jimmer” (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

The antics ramp up when “The Jimmer” (Kimberly Kalember) joins the party. She hasn’t been quite right, we’re told, since the alien abduction, and has since developed a bizarre speech impediment that makes for heaps of laughter and confusion. Kalember is ridiculously funny and a ton of fun to watch.

Thompson has a gift for designing immersive sets with thoughtful details on the intimate stage at Left Edge, and this one’s no exception. (Kat Motley helps out with a host of peculiar props.) The rustic plank walls and flannel sheets will make you want to pack a suitcase and cozy up at your own cabin in the woods this winter. Ish completes the picture with befitting costume choices that add to the amusement. April George shows off her lighting skills with forest backdrops and paranormal visitations, even bending time with a cleverly-placed stop motion strobe effect.

Whether you’re hungry for something new and unusual or just in need of a good, lighthearted laugh to ward off the holiday blues, “Escanaba” is the perfect tonic. This one’s guaranteed to leave you smiling all the way home.

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionEscanaba in da Moonlight
Written byJeff Daniels
Directed byArgo Thompson
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough December 15th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$15-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review PICK! Astounding “Mother of the Maid” at Marin Theatre Company by Barry Willis

Isabelle Arc (Sherman Fracher) and her daughter, Joan Arc (Rosie Hallett)
Photo: Kevin Berne

A mother’s love has seldom been as brilliantly or movingly depicted as it is in Jane Anderson’s “Mother of the Maid,” at Marin Theatre Company through December 15.

Directed by Jasson Minadakis, it’s a story of a mother’s devotion to one of history’s most famous and most controversial figures. Joan of Arc had a short life: she was only 17 when she led the French army against the English during the last gasp of the Hundred Years War, and was only 19 when she was burned at the stake as a heretic. Her parents endured it all—Joan’s recurring visions, irrepressible spirit, indomitable purpose, and tragic end. Her father Jacques (played by the always rock-solid Scott Coopwood) witnessed her execution and suffered psychosomatic blindness a result, and is said to have died of grief shortly thereafter.

While it’s Joan’s trajectory that propels the piece, it’s really the story of her mother Isabelle (the astounding Sherman Fracher) whose devotion is so strong that she not only bathes and comforts her daughter on the morning of her execution but in the decades after, pursues clearing her name, taking her case all the way to the Pope in Rome. Joan of Arc was ultimately exonerated of heresy and declared a saint, in large part due to Isabelle’s persistence.

Isabelle (Sherman Fracher) sees Joan (Rosie Hallett) for the first time in months.
Photo: Kevin Berne.

The Church permeated every aspect of life in the Middle Ages in Europe—business, finance, government, military, and private family affairs. It was an age of superstition and savagery—despite the Biblical commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” with Church approval, governments small and large squandered economic and human resources on one pointless war after another—a tradition that continued right into the modern era. Illiterate sheepherders, the Arc family had seen their friends and neighbors, the Lebecs, hacked to death by the English.

…as near-perfect a production as we may ever see on a Bay Area stage.

From early adolescence, Joan (Rosie Hallett) had visions of visitations from St. Catherine that instilled in her a deep conviction that her purpose was to lead France to liberty—a belief shared by local clergyman Father Gilbert (Robert Sicular), who pleads her case with church officials. Father Gilbert is a kind-hearted go-between, and Isabelle respects him. Jacques is more a hardened realist but knows better than to argue points of theology or to question authority. Joan’s brother Pierre (Brennan Pickman-Thoon) is a teenager enamored with playing soldier—he couldn’t be prouder of his armor and his sword, and is Joan’s companion in battle, which we do not see enacted onstage.

Joan (Rosie Hallett) dictates a letter while her parents, Isabelle (Sherman Fracher) and Jacques Arc (Scott Coopwood), observe.
Photo: Kevin Berne.

Except for the opening scene—in the Arc home, implied by a structure of rough open timbers—all of the action takes place on a dauntingly beautiful set by Sean Fanning, a collection of floating Gothic arches that serves as Church, palace, and prison, made ethereal or oppressive by Chris Lundahl’s exquisite lighting. Marin Theatre Company regular Liz Sklar does a fine turn as a lady of the court, who befriends Joan (and subsequently, Isabelle) and wins her favor with the Dauphin, future King Charles VII of France. Isabelle’s visit to court involved walking three hundred miles over rough terrain, a journey she undertook multiple times. Fancher conveys Isabelle’s exhaustion and inexhaustible devotion as if they are simply what any mother would endure for her daughter.

Anderson’s use of modern dialect is an act of genius. The Arc family speaks in a sort of hybrid Irish/Minnesota accent, while the clergy and ‘noble folk’ speak more formally. The dialog might have been delivered in a sort of pseudo-Shakespearean with French accents, but putting it in modern language makes the whole story more immediate, more real, and more applicable to our own time. 600 years after Joan of Arc, superstition and savagery are still the rule.

“Mother of the Maid” is a heartbreaking piece of theater. A mother’s devotion to her children is one of the fundamental forces of human existence. MTC deserves high praise for bringing it to the forefront of our consciousness. It’s simply brilliant—as near-perfect a production as we may ever see on a Bay Area stage.

Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ProductionMother of the Maid
Written byJane Anderson
Directed byJasson Minadakis
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough Dec 15th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$10– $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An Aisle Seat Review! “Champions of Magic” an Astounding Show at the Golden Gate by Barry Willis

For the next few days, Bay Area theater fans have a rare opportunity to see the UK-based international touring show “Champions of Magic,” with twice-per-day performances through Dec. 1 at San Francisco’s downtown Golden Gate Theatre.

Five world-class illusionists and one aerialist/contortionist prove that classic theatrical magic is alive and well, with acts that include a mind-reader, a sleight-of-hand performer, an escape artist, and illusionists Strange & Young, who make people including themselves disappear and reappear instantly in ways that absolutely baffle and confound the audience.

Champions … is a wonderful departure from traditional theater and is suitable for entire families.

Aided by willing audience members, some little children, the sleight-of-hand artist gets an amazing amount of mileage from a Five of Clubs pulled from her deck, cut-and-torn paper, and various ordinary objects including rubber bands. Audience volunteers also propel the mind-reader, who on opening night correctly guessed names and relationships of random people pulled onstage. He also identified one woman as a Navy veteran and former presidential guard, without any apparent prior knowledge. How this is possible will keep you wondering long after the show is over.

The escape artist revives some of Houdini’s best tricks, including getting out of a straitjacket while submerged in a tank of water locked from the outside, a performance guaranteed to induce anxiety in anyone with a hint of claustrophobia. Strange & Young offer plenty of comedic patter as they leap about with a dynamic, quick-moving illusionist spectacle worthy of Las Vegas.

“Champions of Magic,” in fact, is the nearest thing to Las Vegas currently running in San Francisco, save the Cirque de Soleil production of “Amaluna” that runs into January. “Champions” is a wonderful departure from traditional theater and is suitable for entire families. The show’s run is short and if opening night is a good indicator, tickets may be in short supply. If dazzling spectacles appeal to you, do not miss this show.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

“Champions of Magic” International Touring Show

  • Golden Gate Theatre, San Francisco
  • Two shows daily through Dec. 1
  • Tickets: $59.99 to $169.99
  • Info: broadwaysf.com

Ratings:

  • Overall: 5 of 5
  • Performance: 5 of 5
  • Stagecraft: 5 of 5

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Marvelous “Miss Bennet” a Must-See at Spreckels – by Nicole Singley

Niernberger and Cadigan (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Austen lovers will rejoice at this dazzling continuation of beloved classic Pride and Prejudice, picking up two years after the novel leaves off and making its Sonoma County premiere at Spreckels through December 15th. Penned with finesse by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley” rings true to the canonical author’s style and characters, full of everything an Austenesque story should be – strong, outspoken women who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo, an abundant wealth of razor-sharp wit, and a heartwarming love story for the ages.

L-R: Pugh, Park, Nordby, and Niernberger (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

The show opens on an elegant drawing room in Mr. Darcy’s sprawling estate, in which he (Matt Cadigan) and Elizabeth (Ilana Niernberger) are preparing for her family to descend for the holidays. Thanks to Niernberger’s spirited demeanor and playful charm, matched with Cadigan’s stately ease, the Darcys are credibly reincarnated as though no time has passed at all. If anything, it’s clear two years of marriage have only served to strengthen and solidify their affection. The two are soon joined by Elizabeth’s eldest sister, Jane (Allie Nordby), and Mr. Bingley (Evan Held), who are expecting their first child and seem happier than ever.

All of this would be enough to make any Pride and Prejudice fan ecstatic, but Gunderson and Melcon have another treat in store. This is Mary Bennet’s turn in the spotlight, after all – the dry-humored, pedantic, and oft-overlooked middle sister, presumed doomed to a life of spinsterhood by her preference for books and pianoforte over the company of other people. Mary (Karina Pugh) has grown since we last saw her, and so too her fear that she may never leave her parents’ home. Must she sit forever on the sidelines, watching each of her sisters find the kind of love she’ll never know? Or could this Christmas bring an unexpected gift?

Pugh makes a brilliant first appearance at Spreckels with her captivating frankness and candor, earning laughs with her deadpan quips and well-timed delivery. Her scenes at the piano are equally hilarious, requiring no words to convey what her character is feeling. (She gets some help behind the scenes from pianist Nancy Hayashibara.)

Diffenderfer and Park (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Also excellent are Ella Park as Lydia Wickham, bubbling over with flirtatious energy as she cavorts about the stage, attempting shamelessly to conceal the unhappiness of her marriage, and Taylor Diffenderfer as the spine-chilling, frigid Anne de Bourgh, channeling her deceased mother’s pretentious disdain and willful intimidation tactics. Her very entrance is like a dark cloud rolling over the stage. She’s transfixing. Even though they act in small part as the story’s villains, they too are given room to grow and hope for a happier ending. Because, after all – as “Miss Bennet” suggests – don’t we all deserve a chance at love?

. . . a completely engrossing and highly enjoyable night at the theater.”

Walters and Pugh (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

The playwrights have succeeded in crafting characters who are believable extensions of their predecessors, allowing their stories to develop in a way that feels natural and at home with Austen’s legacy. The addition of Darcy’s socially-awkward cousin, Arthur de Bourgh (Zane Walters), is a welcome surprise. He fits right in as the perfect complement to Mary’s hyper-studious and antisocial tendencies. Walters is simply outstanding – his Arthur is genuine and endearing, and despite his clumsy stumbling, a character you’ll want to root for.

Elizabeth Bazzano’s set is tasteful and inviting, begging us to cozy up beside the fireplace, help decorate a much-discussed spruce tree, or gaze out the beautiful window at snow falling on a frosted landscape. Pamela Johnson has chosen costumes that feel in keeping with the characters’ personalities. (A minor wardrobe malfunction was noticeable but easily forgotten amid the fun.)

Director Sheri Lee Miller helms this tightly-paced production with an evident flair for comedic timing. The unceasingly clever dialogue is well served by all members of this first-rate ensemble, and adeptly paired with physical comedy and priceless facial expressions throughout. Rarely has a show made me laugh so often and wholeheartedly.

While previous knowledge of Pride and Prejudice will greatly enhance your enjoyment of the show, it’s completely unnecessary. Even those new to Austen will find much to love in this easy-to-navigate and utterly uplifting story. Stellar writing, effective direction, and an exceptional cast combine to make “Miss Bennet” a completely engrossing and highly enjoyable night at the theater. Sincerely sweet and unforgettably good, it’s a true delight from start to finish, and over in a flash. You may even wish to catch it twice before it’s gone.

 

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionMiss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley
Written byLauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon
Directed bySheri Lee Miller
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough December 15th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$10-$24
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An Aisle Seat Review Theater Review: Big Sprawling “Oliver!” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

Sold to the Undertaker – photo by Eric Chazankin

London in Charles Dickens’s time must have been close to hell on earth, choked with pollution, poverty, homelessness, and crime. “Oliver Twist,” the author’s second novel, depicts all this quite vividly. So does “Oliver!” the 1960 musical adaptation by Lionel Bart, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse through December 15.

The show’s requirement of many children in the cast prompts theater companies to present it in the hope of generating substantial ticket sales—all those kids have parents, relatives, and friends who must attend. But despite its huge popularity, it’s not a feel-good extravaganza like “Annie.” It’s a grim portrait of a poor orphan boy (Cecilia Brenner and Gus Jordan, in alternating performances) doing his best to survive in unbelievably adverse circumstance.

This includes falling in with a group of scuzzy adolescent hoodlums led by an old hustler named Fagin (David Yen), who fences their stolen goods in exchange for providing them a bit of safety and mentorship, aided by his youthful apprentice The Artful Dodger (Mario Herrera). These small-time criminals are in turn under the thumb of a really serious criminal named Bill Sykes (the imposing Zachary Hasbany), a malevolent force who doesn’t hesitate to kill people who displease him or get in his way.

…the performers are exuberantly entertaining across the whole range of acting, singing, and dancing…

Survival is the primary plot, but there are some compelling secondary plots too, including love affairs among the adults—especially between the doomed, pathetically mistreated Nancy (Brittany Law) and the dastardly Sikes. There’s also a meandering subplot about the hunt for Oliver’s family of origin that’s resolved near the end, as is Fagin’s reconsideration of his disreputable career.

Cecilia Brenner as Oliver-Mario Herrera as Dodger-photo by Eric Chazankin

6th Street’s show has a huge cast—it’s in many ways an all-star gathering of North Bay theatrical talent, who make substantial contributions to its success under director Patrick Nims. The set by Sam Transleau is equally huge, occupying the entirety of the big stage in the G.K. Hardt theater, save the space backstage where Ginger Beavers leads an excellent seven-piece band.

There’s some inexplicable gender-bending in the adult casting, but most of the performers are exuberantly entertaining across the whole range of acting, singing, and dancing (choreography by Joseph Favalora).

Oliver’s personal triumph is uplifting, and Fagin’s repentance satisfying, but the real appeal of the show—and perhaps, the reason for its enduring popularity—is the number of great songs in it. Many of them broke out as pop and jazz standards—especially Nancy’s heartbreaking showcase number, “As Long As He Needs Me.” The music alone recommends this show, while the rest of it works with admirable effort in every direction to sustain that level.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionOliver!
Written byLionel Bart
Directed byPatrick Nims
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough December 15th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$22 – $38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

 

An Aisle Seat Theater PICK! “She Loves Me” is a Charming Musical Romance at RVP — by Cari Lynn Pace

Photos by Robin Jackson.

Ross Valley Players has collaborated with the Mountain Play Association to present a light-hearted nostalgic musical filled with fine performances.

“She Loves Me” debuted in 1964. It’s based on the 1937 play “Parfumerie” by Miklos Laszlo, which inspired classic films as 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail in 1998. An homage to Cyrano de Bergerac that takes place in a 1930’s Budapest perfume shop—Maraczek’s Parfumerie—the musical won multiple Tony awards for its 1993 and 2016 Broadway revivals.

The Ross Valley Players and the Mountain Play Association are two of the oldest theatre companies in Marin. Why is the Mountain Play collaborating with RVP for this special performance, not a part of the regular RVP season? “We want to become more of a year-round musical company and lend our support to others. We’ve been behind the scenes of the Ross Valley Players since one of their plays in 1935 (“The World We Live In”) was subsequently presented as our Mountain Play for that year,” explained Eileen Grady, Executive Director and Artistic Producer of the Mountain Play.

This charming and cheerful musical … is a great lead-in to the Christmas season.

“She Loves Me” enjoys an unusually lengthy run: five performances per week almost to Christmas Day. A familiar name to Mountain Play devotees is veteran choreographer/actor Nicole Helfer, who has shifted her admirable skills to direct this production. Multi-talented Jake Gale, who just completed a run as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Marin Musical Theatre Company’s “Rocky Horror Show,” serves as vocal director and also supervises the show’s music.

Photos by Robin Jackson.

A large cast of thirteen does a fine job acting, singing, and dancing in period costumes designed by Michael A. Berg. Petite Marah Sotelo is a standout as the store clerk Amalia, both in spot-on acting, gestures and a pleasing soprano voice. Max Kligman is well-matched as Georg, her “Dear Friend” mystery suitor, despite their amusing height difference.

Photos by Robin Jackson.

Another surprising talent (and this show contains many) is Anthony Maglio, who does a fine lothario shop clerk, then later becomes an aggressive waiter plagued by a clumsy busboy (Alex Munoz). Act I’s highlight has to be the hilarious café scene “A Romantic Atmosphere.” Store clerks are played and sung convincingly by Patrick Barr and young Alex Cook. Lovely Chelsey Ristaino balances out the staff and gets to steal a few scenes as she finds amusing library romance in Act II.

Photos by Robin Jackson.

Ron Dritz and Michael Walraven (also the show’s set designer) provide supporting characters. They’re joined by the song-and-dance moves of Dana Cherry, Katie Rose, MacKenzie Cahill, and a tantalizing tango by Sophie de Morelos and that clumsy busboy Alex Munoz.

This charming and cheerful musical is a bit long (2 ½ hours) with a first act of 90 minutes, but it’s a great lead-in to the Christmas season.

ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionShe Loves Me
Written byAgatha Christie
Directed byNicole Helfer
Producing CompanyMountain Play Association and Ross Valley Players
Production DatesThru December 22nd
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.MountainPlay.org
Telephone415. 383-1100
Tickets$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “Bluff” Choice Bits to Chew on in This Slice of Life – by Cari Lynn Pace

Cameron Stuckey is Gene and Anya Cherniss is Doubling Actress in “Bluff.” Photos by: Marc Bussin

Jeffrey Sweet’s newest play is billed as a dark comedy, although it’s more drama than humor. This 90-minute peek at a couple’s relationship breaks theatre’s “fourth wall” repeatedly, interacting with the audience in San Rafael’s Belrose Theatre. This is the perfect cabaret-style venue for this show. Actors access the stage from the wings as well as the back of the house, using the center aisle to surprise the audience.

Bluff begins with two actors on the minimalist set speaking their lines with a recitation of the script’s directions. Just when you’re getting the hang of their unconventional interaction, this artifice is dropped. Someone on the street is being attacked. Neal grabs his baseball bat to the rescue. The victim is patched up. It’s NYC, so the unnamed dude (Alvin Josephs) departs without a “by your leave.”

Emily (Isabelle Grimm) and Neal (Will Livingston) are left to get acquainted, the millennials who helped defend the victim. Emily notes “It’s a good thing you’re not a tennis player, as a racquet wouldn’t make as good a weapon as your bat.”

This 90-minute peek at a couple’s relationship breaks theatre’s “fourth wall” repeatedly…

They couple up and discuss living together. The dialog is ordinary but intriguing to eavesdrop. This is a good thing as the plot isn’t much. Emily has an apartment, and Neal wisely observes “If I move in, it will be “your” place, not “our” place.”

Despite reservations, Emily and Neal cohabitate her apartment. More conversations. Emily phones her hospitalized mother (Tamara Chandler) on the West Coast who laughingly brushes off her daughter’s concerns about drinking and health.

(L to R) Cameron Stuckey is Gene, Isabelle Grimm is Emily, Will Livingston is Neal in “Bluff”.
Photos by: Marc Bussin

Emily’s stepdad Gene arrives in town for a convention, and the tension between these two is immediate and unexplained. Gene (Cam Stuckey) seems affable enough, although it’s difficult to catch all his dialog. He’s a salesman and makes the effort to be sociable to Emily and her boyfriend, but Emily won’t move off her aggressive attitude. The guys bond.

A truth-telling moment occurs when Gene admits he’s been philandering. Emily realizes that Gene has been the only stabilizing force in her alcoholic mother’s life. Self-centered Emily isn’t the least bit grateful. She weighs her dismal options if she snitches on Gene. We never really see a likable side to Emily or learn what’s behind her unrelenting bitchiness.

Emily boots out her boyfriend.

Gene goes home.

Neal shrugs.

And the play ends.

In spite of the unfinished feeling to Bluff, making it seem more like a sketch, there are some clever nuggets. The playwright demonstrates his skill with improv to make the lack of props amusing. Gene asks for a real glass in the bar scene, and the waiter crankily responds, “You’ve been using pretend phones, why can’t you use a pretend cocktail?”

The comedic high point of Bluff is the unnamed part played by Anya Cherniss. She appears briefly in the opening scene and reappears much later as a sultry temptress engaging Gene at a bar. When her lines indicate she should exit the stage, she instead begins ranting to the audience about her character’s qualities. She takes center stage to whine that she should have more lines to speak, as she is a very capable actor. Director Joey Hoeber steps up to command that she leave. Breaking that “fourth wall” brings the biggest laugh of the show.

Despite the shortage of character development or motivation, theatre is meant to be entertaining. Bluff certainly fits that description.

ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionBluff
Written byJeffrey Sweet
Directed byJoey Hoeber & Dianne Harrison
Producing CompanyJolee Productions
Production DatesFridays & Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 2 PM through November 16th
Production AddressBelrose Theatre
1415 Fifth Avenue, San Rafael, CA
Websitebrownpapertickets.com/event/4345503
Telephone
Tickets$25/advance, $27 at door
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! A Sharp-Edged Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, NTC Collaborates w/Theatre-at-Large by Cari Lynn Pace

Alison Peltz as Mrs. Lovett, Bruce Vieira as Sweeney Todd and Fernando Siu as Tobias Ragg
Photo Credit: Kristen Schutz

This fiendishly fine performance would make Stephen Sondheim smile with sadistic glee. It’s dark and diabolical, with singing, acting, costumes, and a two-level set as sharp as the shaving razor wielded by Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Directors Kim Bromley and Bruce Vieira (masterfully commanding the title role) are skilled veterans at their craft.  They handle the darkly humorous story of a vengeful barber with restraint, using a large cadre of actors and an even larger oven. Ragged actors move in from all sections of the theatre to sweep the audience into the malevolent background story.

It’s hard times in desperate 19th century London, and many morals have been suspended. A migrant sailor (handsome Cordell Wesselink) rescues a mysterious castaway who calls himself Sweeney Todd.  Bruce Vieira seems chillingly suited for this title role, giving it an imposing figure and dour countenance.

Todd is a talented barber who captures the admiration of the street scene by challenging the local barber and mountebank (mustachioed Dominic Quin-Harken) to a shave-off.  His young assistant Tobias (irrepressible Fernando Siu) is flexible when his master becomes not only the loser, but oddly lost to sight as well.

Don’t miss NTC’s Sweeney Todd… It’s deliciously devilish…

Todd sets up shop, and gains the attention of Mrs. Lovett (charming Alison Peltz), the widowed pie-maker, despite his character’s taciturn demeanor. Peltz is the award-winning actor who connives her way into making meat stuffing for her pies from the victims of Todd’s short-tempered vengeance. This unholy alliance brings delicious accolades and business prosperity while Todd bides his time for revenge on the Judge (snidely done by Charles Evans) and the Beedle (a fine role voiced by Mauricio Suarez).

The Judge and Beedle had sent Todd to a prison colony to pave the way for the seduction of Todd’s wife. Unfortunately, she took poison rather than succumb to their lecherous plans.

Todd has escaped and returns to find that his grown daughter (lovely soprano Julianne Bretan) is the ward of the very Judge who lusted after Todd’s wife. The libidinous Judge is now focused on pursuing the daughter. It’s all one can do to resist hissing at these bad boys.

As a child, some may recall the gruesome song “Dunderbeck’s Machine.” We laughed at the invention of his sausage meat machine, and the outcome, when we boisterously sang the lyrics. Let it be noted that Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has added social elements that make it inappropriate for children.

Cordell Wesselink as Anthony and Julianne Bretan as Johanna
Photo Credit: Mark Clark

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street won multiple Tony awards, including best musical. There are a couple of recognizable songs including “(Nothing’s Going to Harm You) Not While I’m Around” and “Pretty Women.” The production possesses sufficient twists and turns in the plot to keep the audience entertained. Sondheim’s songs and lyrics are a real challenge, yet all are impressively handled by the cast who had countless rehearsals to do such an outstanding job.

NTC’s recipe for success is Hugh Wheeler’s book, mixed with Marilyn Izdebski’s choreography, and folding in the meaty music directed by Judy Weisen to bake up this tasty treat.  Don’t miss NTC’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s deliciously devilish.

Playing now through November 17th at the Novato Playhouse, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato CA. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2 PM.  Shows suspended by the North Bay Kincaid fires will transfer to Thursdays, Nov. 7 & 14 at 7:30pm.

ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionSweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Written byStephen Sondheim
Directed byKim Bromley & Bruce Vieira
Producing CompanyNovato Theater Company
Production DatesThrough Nov. 17th
Production AddressNovato Theater Company
5420 Nave Drive, Novato 94949
WebsiteNovatoTheaterCompany.org
Telephone(855) 682-8491
Tickets$24 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! “The Rocky Horror Show”: Music Matched with Debauchery by Cari Lynn Pace

If you’re looking for a wild and sex-crazed show filled with energy and imaginative characters, go see “The Rocky Horror Show” produced by the Marin Musical Theatre Company.

It’s become a cult tradition to shout key lines at the actors at this outrageous show, based on the 1975 musical horror film. The MMTC program helpfully provides an audience participation script, as well as an etiquette guide with behavior rules, to keep rowdies from ruining the fun for everyone.

This is not a performance for children. Expect a young crowd of Millennials and a raunchy Act II to remind you this isn’t your grandma’s evening at the theatre. And don’t bring Grandpa, especially if he has a heart condition.

It’s eye-popping interaction as audience members show up in costumes and slutty face paint. Lucky ones are selected for the pre-show games, where they might join the cast to sacrifice virgins, imitate animal orgasms, or compete for top honors. Everyone practices the “Time Warp” steps to come later.

Cast members are dressed, or rather undressed, in racy attire. They coach the audience to holler out “Asshole” when Brad (perfectly cast Lorenzo Alviso) appears. Janet (played by Jenny Boynton, who also directed this show) has the shouted moniker “Slut”. The crowd hoots loudly and the partying begins.

Those who have never been to a live performance of “The Rocky Horror Show” might take a while to warm up to the idea of sexual perversion as humor, but that’s the nature of this show. A glass of wine or beer helps!

Those who have never been to a live performance of “The Rocky Horror Show” might take a while to warm up…

As the story of this bizarre journey begins, it follows straight-laced Brad and Janet whose car breaks down near a strange mansion opened by an even stranger ghoul, Riff Raff. Nelson Brown outdoes himself in this smarmy and lecherous role. He’s keen to have elbow sex with Magenta, acted and sung by the powerhouse Dani Innocenti Beem. These two get everyone charged up when they do the “Time Warp” again.

Already bursting with sensual anticipation, the audience explodes when Dr. Frank-N-Furter enters. Jack Gale is the ballsy and brassy “Sweet Transvestite from Transylvania.” He casts his spell in a corset and lustful smile…a trouper with great singing chops.

Out comes Rocky, the golden boy enacted by brawny and beautiful Michael Lamb. Females swoon at sight of him, but the males do, too. What obscene scene will come next?

Amidst this chaotic depravity, Daniel Savio directs five talented musicians who underscore Katie Wickes’ choreography. Several set-ups, like the ensemble performing as Brad and Janet’s car, are quite clever.

“The Rocky Horror Show” does not allow children under 13, as MMTC rates it a “strong R.” Indulge in this riotous and ribald experience through Halloween, October 31st.

ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionThe Rocky Horror Show!
Written byRichard O’Brien
Directed byJenny Boynton
Producing CompanyMarin Musical Theater Company
Production DatesThursday (Halloween) at 6:00 and 9:00 PM,

Fridays & Saturdays at 7:30 PM,

Sundays at 5 PM through October 3
Production AddressThe Playhouse in San Anselmo

27 Kensington Road, San Anselmo CA
Websitewww.marinmusicals.org
Telephone---
Tickets$27 – $50
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK!: “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” — Cari Lynn Pace Reviews a Musical That Gets Away with Murder!

Michael Ross directs this hilarious and campy musical at Spreckels Performing Arts Center’s Codding Theatre. The plot is immediately intriguing: impoverished Monty (well-cast in Andrew Smith) discovers he has an aristocratic birthright, making him ninth in line to inherit both title and fortune.

How did that happen? Turns out Monty’s noble-born mum had been rudely disinherited, and kept mum about it. His lady-friend Sibella (Madison Genovese) ignores poor Monty as she prefers a more financially secure suitor. Can Monty move up the inheritance list quickly enough to win her hand? Can he bump eight dismissive and nasty relatives off the queue?

“A Gentleman’s Guide” is morbidly delightful fun that’ll just kill you with laughter…

And what relatives they are! Tim Setzer, a talented veteran actor, clearly has a ball playing every one of the noble-born inheritors…including a female. It’s worth the price of admission just to watch him change personalities and voices as he doffs another costume.

 

“A Gentleman’s Guide” won four Tonys when it hit Broadway in 2014, including Best Musical. Gilbert and Sullivan might have been proud of the operetta-style music and lyrics by Steven Lutvak (with additional book and lyrics by Robert L. Freeman.) Several songs have a patter-singing character to cleverly move the plot along.

Act II has a particularly engaging number “I’ve Decided to Marry You.” While Monty hides his lover Sabella behind one door, his marriage-manic cousin Phoebe (lovely soprano Maeve Smith) embraces him behind the other. The trio has the comic chops and strong vocals which brought a cheer from the audience.

In further homage to G&S, “A Gentleman’s Guide” has several surprises and an amusing twist at the end. The musical is appropriate for all ages, despite the rather macabre story line. No blood, thank you, except for the blue kind.

The set is a stage on the stage, opulently designed by Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen. Codding Theatre takes it a step further, maximizing their rear-projection screen to depict scene changes. Ice skaters cruise back and forth. Bees swarm. Tourists take tours of the mansion. Underneath it all is the 12-piece orchestra conducted by Jim Coleman.

“A Gentleman’s Guide” is morbidly delightful fun that’ll just kill you with laughter.

ASR Editor Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionUrinetown, the Musical
Written byMark Holman and Greg Kotis
Directed byJay Manley
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough March 1st
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$12-$36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

AN ASR THEATER REVIEW: “Sovereignty” a History Lesson Well Served at MTC – by Barry Willis

The signing of the Treaty of New Echota (L-R: Elizabeth Frances, Adam Magill, Kholan Studi, Scott Coopwood, Andrew Roa, Robert I. Mesa). Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

The displacement of conquered people is pretty much the history of the human race. So is the disregard of treaties by conquerors. Most historical retellings vary only in the degree of dishonesty and savagery depicted of conquerors toward the conquered—a degree that depends largely on which side the tale comes from. History is told by the victors, as the old adage has it.

At Marin Theatre Company through October 20, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s “Sovereignty” examines in detail the legal and illegal wranglings of 1832 that resulted in the forced migration of the Cherokee people from Georgia to Oklahoma (the infamous “trail of tears”). White settlers supported by President Andrew Jackson were making incursions into the Cherokee Nation, in violation of a treaty that gave the Cherokee jurisdiction over their land and all that took place on it. In Worchester v. Georgia the US Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall upheld native sovereignty, a decision defied by Jackson and his loyal US Congress. (Any resemblances between Jackson’s erratic antics and those of the current occupant of the White House are purely intentional.)

Sarah Bird Northrup (Ella Dershowitz) and John Ridge (Robert I. Mesa) make plans for their future. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

As told by Nagle, Cherokee legal scholars John Ridge (Robert J. Mesa) and Major Ridge (Andrew Roa) worked within the court system to assert the rights of their people, but were considered traitors by more militant Cherokee leaders, such as John Ross (Jake Waid), who favored armed conflict as the only way to insure their survival—or in Ridge’s view, their total destruction. Mutual distrust  between their descendants continues into the present, when a brilliant lawyer named Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances) seeks a position with the office of Cherokee Attorney General Jim Ross. As a member of a rival clan, Polson conceals her family identity until well after she’s landed the job.

Acting and pacing are both first-rate…

The issue of clan identity and inherited guilt is a running theme throughout the play. It’s a common story—people in many cultures are often deemed responsible for the actions of their ancestors—but Nagle doesn’t delve into its illogic. And she acknowledges with barely a nod that the Cherokee were slave owners. Instead she focuses on the outrageously illegal actions of Jackson and his ilk, and on more recent events, such as the 1978 Supreme Court decision Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, which largely voided the benefits of Worchester v. Georgia, including eliminating the rights of native people to prosecute criminal acts by non-natives. In her notes in the playbill, Nagle mentions that attacks against natives by non-natives have risen horrendously since then—especially attacks against native women. Oliphant, in her view, was vindication of Jackson 140 years later.

Polson, her lead character, is a seeker of justice, in particular, one seeking enforcement of the Obama administration’s Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that will restore some protection to native women—an argument she makes forcefully to the US Supreme Court in the play’s closing scene. Elizabeth Frances is at the height of her theatrical powers here. It’s a tremendous bit of theater with a resounding message, strongly directed by MTC Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis.

Flora Ridge (Ella Dershowitz) and Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances) reconnect in the family graveyard. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

Acting and pacing are both first-rate in this piece, written by a native American and featuring several native actors. The past and present intersect almost seamlessly and sometimes confusingly, the two periods often distinguished only by the position of a long table on stage or by the costumes worn by actors.

The blending of the past and present is a dramatic structure to reinforce the concept of how much the present resembles the past. This sort of blending is also applied to the character of Ben O’Connor (Craig Marker, who also plays Andrew Jackson) a white detective who, early in the first act, leaps to the defense of Polson’s brother Watie (Kholan Studi) when he’s accosted by a drunken redneck (Scott Coopwood, superb in several roles). Ben is incensed by the redneck’s blatant racism, and exhibits admirable bravery in dealing with him. Shortly thereafter he charmingly asks Sarah Polson to marry him, and she agrees, but as soon as he’s downed a couple of drinks he becomes an insufferably small-minded racist jackass himself.

It’s a convenient plot device but doesn’t ring true, and provokes related questions such as why a whip-smart lawyer like Sarah Polson can’t perceive that her fiancée isn’t trustworthy. Such limitations in the script prevent “Sovereignty” from earning unlimited praise. Nonetheless, it’s a very good effort by a talented cast, presented as compellingly as possible—a history lesson well served.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionMother of the Maid
Written byJane Anderson
Directed byJasson Minadakis
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough Dec 15th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$10– $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Merman’s Apprentice” Delights at Sonoma Arts Live – by Barry Willis

Sutherland and Innocenti-Beem light up the stage in “Merman’s Apprentice” (Photo Credit: Miller Oberlin)

A young girl with stars in her eyes goes on the trip of a lifetime, and takes the audience with her, in “Merman’s Apprentice,” at Sonoma Arts Live through October 13.

It’s New York, 1970. Broadway legend Ethel Merman (Daniela Innocenti-Beem) is enjoying the zenith of her long career when into her life comes Muriel Plakenstein (Emma Sutherland), a 12-year-old runaway whose big dream is to be a Broadway star like Merman, her idol. Muriel happens to know everything about Ethel Merman, including every song she ever sang and obscure details of shows that ran decades earlier. An obsessive who will find fulfillment only in absorbing everything-Mermanesque, Muriel gets her wish, and in doing so fills a huge gap in Merman’s life. 

The cast of Merman’s Apprentice (Photo Credit: Miller Oberlin)

The adult woman and the runaway form an almost-instant bond, reinforced early in the first act by the joyfully infectious song “Chums,” one that sets the emotional tone for the entire production. Innocenti-Beem is amazing as mentor/fairy godmother to a goofy talented girl with single-minded devotion toward becoming the next Ethel, as is 17-year-old Sutherland in conveying the innocence, enthusiasm, and vulnerability of adolescence. Playing younger is difficult for all performers, and Sutherland does it perfectly. As the story progresses, Muriel meets legendary musical theater impresario David Merrick (Patrick Barr), enjoys performances at the St. James Theatre, and dinners-and-drinkfests at Sardi’s. She also becomes Merman’s permanent house guest. Stars in her eyes, indeed.

Part fable, part fairy tale, and all heart, . . . a show that will delight theater fans of all varieties and ages.”

Playwright and lyricist Stephen Cole was a close friend of the real Ethel Merman in her later years and captures her signature snappy repartee perfectly. Innocenti-Beem, a huge-voiced stalwart of North Bay musical theater, has often been compared to Merman, including her penchant for improvisational off-color humor. When Cole met Innocenti-Beem for the weeks-long refinement process that rendered this show, he declared her “more Ethel than Ethel was,” echoing what local critics have been saying for years. She soars in “Listen to the Trumpet Call” late in the first act. One of Innocenti-Beem’s “Apprentice” costumes is the spectacular red dress she wore in a recent production of “Hello, Dolly,” a Merman signature role. 

Cole’s musical collaborator David Evans has cooked up a couple dozen tunes that evoke the glory days of big brash Broadway musicals. “Apprentice” is set in 1970 but it references an earlier, more innocent age—there’s no hint of the Vietnam War or the growing protest movement, nor of the era’s incendiary black radicalism. It’s as if 1955 were forever trapped in amber, but the music is tremendous, delivered by an ace seven-piece band under the direction of Sherrill Peterson. The songs all clearly reference blockbuster show tunes from the 1930s into the ‘60s. The finale seems to quote “Comedy Tonight,” the lead song from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” 

Holsworth and O’Brien as Mom and Pop (Photo Credit: Miller Oberlin)

Directors Larry Williams and Jaime Weisen Love have done something magical in bringing a production of this scale to the Rotary Stage. The large ensemble does an admirable job with Lissa Ferreira’s choreography on an impressive set by Gary Gonser, now recovering from a recent medical emergency. (Get healthy, Gary!) Sean O’Brien and Julia Holsworth are outstanding among the ensemble in their roles of Pop and Mom, respectively. Holsworth’s flat-footed shuffle is especially funny. The only real quibble with this world premiere is that the first act may be a bit overlong and the second act too short. It’s as if the second act needs one more song to balance the production. Cole and Evans can certainly supply this before the show goes to Broadway, as seems inevitable.

“Merman’s Apprentice” is a huge unabashed exercise in nostalgia. Part fable, part fairy tale, and all heart, it’s a show that will delight theater fans of all varieties and ages. The show and its stars are destined for much broader horizons, so catch it while you can.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionMerman's Apprentice
Written byBook and Lyrics by Stephen Cole; Music by David Evans
Directed byJaime Weiser Love and Larry Williams
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThrough October 13th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone(866) 710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW: SF Playhouse Missteps with “Dance Nation” – by Nicole Singley

Time flies when you’re having fun. And it slows to a crawl when you aren’t. “Dance Nation” at San Francisco Playhouse succeeds in proving that an hour and fifty-two minutes can feel like an eternity. It fails at just about everything else it ostensibly sets out to accomplish. With no intermission and thus no chance for a polite escape, this production feels more like an avant-garde experiment in torture than an illuminating night at the theater.

The premise is straightforward enough. An Ohio dance troupe comprised of preteen girls – played by adult women of various ages, at the playwright’s instruction – is vying for a spot at Nationals in Tampa Bay. The competition is fierce, and things get really strange and gory. But there isn’t much more to the story, if it could even be called that. Instead it merely serves as a backdrop for a series of disjointed, drawn-out monologues, ranging from flat and painfully boring to overly-intense and agitating, like a bad slam poetry throwdown at the local café where angry feminists commune to rail against the patriarchy and destigmatize the female body. It plays like a misguided grab at women’s empowerment wrapped up in a hollow coming-of-age story about resilience and self-discovery. But none of it rings true.

Clare Barron has packed a lot into her characters, but little that’s terribly realistic or relatable. We bear witness to one girl’s narcissistic meltdown, reaching fever pitch as she shouts at the audience “I’m going to make you my bitch, you motherfucking cunt-munching piece of shit prick. I am your god. I am your second coming.” In another scene, a girl who’s just gotten her period smears menstrual blood across her face like war paint. In yet another, a familiar childhood pact takes a warped turn when the girls wipe armpit sweat on each other’s upper lips and kiss (what ever happened to the good old pinky promise?). We watch grown women depicting thirteen-year-old girls strip naked together without a hint of modesty or embarrassment. (Does this match your childhood locker room experience? It certainly doesn’t mine.) And yet despite their comfortable bond, the show opens awkwardly on the troupe abandoning an injured teammate on the dance floor. It all feels gratuitous, ill-fitting and off-key.

Are these the inner thoughts and lives of women? Good grief, let’s hope not.”

The cast of “Dance Nation” at work at San Francisco Playhouse (Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli)

The coup de grâce is the show’s conclusion (dare I call it that), which features the entire cast chanting “I wish my soul were as perfect as my pussy!” – louder with each repetition – so many times that I could hear it echoing inside my head the whole drive home. Are these the inner thoughts and lives of women? Good grief, let’s hope not. None of it serves any discernible purpose but to shock and repulse the audience, for shock’s sake alone. Despite being the work of a young female playwright, “Dance Nation” is so deeply out of touch with its subject matter that it fails to be emotionally accessible in any meaningful way. It tries really hard to be controversial and edgy – in keeping with much of contemporary art – but only managed to leave me feeling tired, bored and angry. It certainly didn’t resonate with my experience of puberty and early womanhood, adolescent rivalries and friendships, the inherent camaraderie in competitive sports, or just about anything else it reaches for.

Without more believable and fully-formed characters or a compelling and cohesive narrative arc, it’s hard to feel all that connected to or interested in anything that’s happening on stage. The dancing isn’t very good, either. It’s just a lot of forced, unnatural dialogue broken up by obnoxious monologues and little to no plot, with some pointless nudity and a lot of fake blood thrown into the mix. The actors commit a commendable amount of energy to their roles, but it’s not enough to make us care about what happens to their characters. The set doesn’t help much, either. It’s clunky and underwhelming, offering little to look at but a shelf full of trophies and large pillars that often block the audience’s view.

In light of this experience, it’s difficult to fathom why this play has received such high praise from other critics. (It won the Relentless Award, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and was even a Pulitzer Prize finalist.) Is Becca Wolff’s direction at fault? Did SF Playhouse simply miss the mark with this one? Given their excellent track record, it’s hard to imagine that’s the case, but without any basis for comparison, it’s impossible to know exactly what to think. All I can say with certainty is that from start to finish, I didn’t find a single minute of this show enjoyable. Seldom have I felt so anxious for something to be over. SF Playhouse calls itself an “empathy gym,” but the only thing “Dance Nation” exercised was this reviewer’s patience.

Nicole Singley is a Senior Contributing Writer and Editor at Aisle Seat Review and a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

ProductionDance Nation
Written byClare Barron
Directed byBecca Wolff
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThrough November 9th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$35 - $125
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall2/5
Performance3/5
Script1/5
Stagecraft2/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Dated but Relevant “Top Girls” Opens ACT Season – by Barry Willis

Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), Dull Gret (Summer Brown), Marlene (Michelle Beck), Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), and Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal) recount their life stories at a dinner party in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls performing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater now through October 13, 2019.

Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” hasn’t been performed in the Bay Area in a long time. It’s been revived as the season opener at American Conservatory Theater, directed by Tamilla Woodard and running through October 13.

About a hard-charging female executive angling to move up the management ladder, the 37-year- old play has lost none of its relevance in the intervening decades, as is made dismayingly clear in several essays-with-statistics in “Words on Plays,” the fascinating booklet that accompanies the show’s playbill. Women still lag behind men in compensation and positions of authority. There’s nothing revelatory in that, but the piece has nonetheless acquired a bit of tarnish over the years.

Director Woodard pulls wonderfully committed performances from her eight-member cast…

At its core, “Top Girls” is a simple tale of a British career woman named Marlene (Michelle Beck), running from the limited opportunities of her working-class origins and pouring all her considerable energy into the pursuit of corporate power. Set in the early 1980s—the play debuted in ’82—it depicts Marlene maneuvering for an executive position even if it means displacing a male colleague who’s the sole support for his family of four. A Thatcherite, Marlene believes in meritocracy – the idea that the cream of society rises to the top – and dismisses the entitlement mentality of leftists and union workers.

Nell (Summer Brown) and Win (Rosie Hallett) arrive to work at the Top Girls Employment Agency in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls performing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater now through October 13, 2019.

As a manager in a busy employment agency, Marlene doesn’t gladly suffer fools. Her interviews with job-seekers are brusque, bordering on insulting, and she doesn’t hesitate to dominate her office-mates. They are not friends. But suffer she does, as we learn in the second act—from the slights she has showered on her family and the personal sacrifices she’s made seeking power in a man’s world. She doesn’t really have a life outside work.

The opening scene could be interpreted as evidence of Marlene’s suffering, and by extension, the suffering of all ambitious women. It’s a comically nightmarish dinner party featuring notable women fictional and historical: 19th-century adventurer Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal); Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), an 11th-century exile from the Japanese Imperial Court; the legendary Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), thought to have reigned during the Middle Ages in the guise of a man; and Dull Gret (Summer Brown), a fearsome warrior immortalized by Brueghel. All bucked the patriarchy; the scene offers each an opportunity to tell her story. Each recitation adds fuel to Marlene’s furious purpose. It also allows all of them to riff simultaneously in multiple accents, an effect that’s literally a fugue of howling madwomen.

We get that they’re angry, even centuries after the fact, but from the audience’s point of view the scene is too long, consuming most of the first act. Here and there in the cacophony we understand a phrase or two, but for the most part, it’s as comprehensible as a long night of Dada poetry.

An esteemed British playwright, Churchill is no respecter of traditional temporal narrative or dramatic structure. The dinner scene—an exercise in art for art’s sake—is followed by an introduction to the employment service where Marlene works, and that, by a scene of two girls at play in a backyard—Kit (Lily D. Harris) and Angie (Gabriella Momah). The first act closes leaving viewers wondering how all this ties together.

 Michelle Beck and Monique Hafen at work at ACT.

The second act is both rebuttal to and redemption for the excesses of the first. In a scene of gut-wrenching earnestness, Marlene has a heart-to-heart with her sister Joyce (Nafeesa Monroe) in her kitchen, where we learn the roots of Marlene’s driving ambition and the nature of her relationship to her worshipful, enthusiastic, but dim-witted niece Angie. The final scene takes place a year before the preceding one, but makes solid dramatic sense.

The play’s difficulties and pretensions are offset by superb acting by a cast of eight women, all save Beck and Momah in dual roles. Performances range from good to exemplary, including Hallett as Win and Brown as Nell, two different but dynamically balanced office workers whose arch banter spices their otherwise tedious workdays. Harris is youngest-appearing of the cast—she looks to be in her late teens—and mid-way through the second act she does a fantastically funny turn as a job-seeker named Shona pretending to be much older.

Shona bluffs with enormous chutzpah and an increasingly absurd litany of business buzzwords during her interview with Nell. She doesn’t know much and the more she talks the more it shows, an expertly rendered comedic sketch that provoked spontaneous applause on opening night.

Aided by Barbara Samuels’s elegant lighting, set designer Nina Ball achieves something remarkable with “Top Girls”—an austere set evoking the coldness of the business world, and another one quite warm and cozy as Joyce’s home. The emergence of Joyce’s residence from far back to stage front is a marvelous effect.

Director Woodard pulls wonderfully committed performances from her eight-member cast, but the standout for this reviewer is Gabriella Momah as the lovable, sweet-natured but intellectually limited Shona. She’s an absolute delight, a bright ray of sunshine in this darkly-tinted story.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionTop Girls
Written byCaryl Churchil
Directed byTamilla Woodard
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough Oct 13th
Production AddressAmerican Conservatory Theater
415 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 834-3200
Tickets$25 – $102
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An AISLE SEAT REVIEW! “Gypsy” a mixed bag at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

In “Gypsy,” the ultimate stage mother from hell comes roaring to life four times per week through October 20 at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse.

Broadway veteran Kathy Fitzgerald stars as Mama Rose, a thrice-divorced mother with two daughters, struggling to make a go of it on the waning Vaudeville circuit. With a gaggle of boy dancers, they manage to survive with an incredibly hokey act—so hokey, in fact, that it’s hard to believe that people actually paid good money to see it.

Carmen Mitchell works as Gypsy Rose Lee.

Rose is both the embodiment of never-say-die positive thinking and parental oppression, browbeating daughters June (Melody Payne) and Louise (Carmen Mitchell, excellent) into submission and forcing them to perform beyond their capacity — a syndrome that ultimately leads to June running off to find her own life with her new husband. Theater agent Herbie (Roger Michelson) tries desperately to become Mama Rose’s final husband, to no avail.

Near the end of the Vaudeville period, an inevitability denied to the last by her mother, Louise transforms from caterpillar to butterfly—and ultimately, into pop culture superstar Gypsy Rose Lee—after a life-changing experience with strippers in a Kansas City burlesque house. Her emergence into stardom is the bright light at the end of the story’s dark tunnel, one camouflaged by some of the most upbeat music ever composed.

There are … substantial talents in this show…

A collaboration by theater legends Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, this more-or-less true story of perseverance and survival could make the most curmudgeonly cynic leave the theater whistling a happy tune. The show is jam-packed with gems from the American songbook, among them “Small World,” “Some People,” “Mr. Goldstone,” “Together, Wherever We Go,” “Let Me Entertain You,” and of course the deathless “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

On leave from a production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Fitzgerald is a big draw—opening weekend was nearly sold-out. She’s an impassioned actor and a good singer with an odd habit of getting into a Sumo wrestler’s half-squat stance to launch big efforts. There are other substantial talents in this show as well, in particular the trio who appear as strippers—Elaine Jennings, Lillian Myers, and Tracy Hinman, all of whom tackle multiple roles. Zach Frangos is confident and appealing as Tulsa, and his dancing is superb. The early scenes feature a gaggle of cute kids, always a reliable strategy for selling tickets.

Gypsy cast at work in finale at 6th Street.

Opening weekend, the band under Paul Smith’s direction hit a dismaying number of sour notes, something that can only be interpreted as intentional in keeping with the low-rent venues where Mama Rose & Company are performing. A tall fellow, Smith tends to stand as he leads the band, and his bobbing head is a real distraction from the upper seats. Joseph Favolora’s choreography is compelling, and Pamela Johnson’s costumes are stunning. There doesn’t appear to have been much left in the production budget for sets, and Jason Jamerson did his best with what he had, resulting in the bare basics. This was the same issue that undermined 6th Street’s production of “La Cage aux Folles.”

This “Gypsy” is certainly enjoyable—how can anyone not love the music?—but, neither over-the-top nor over-the-moon, it’s far from a sumptuous production of this classic.

ASR Executive Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionGypsy
Written byArthur Laurents, Jule Styne, and Stephen Sondheim
Directed byJared Sakren
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough Oct 20th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$35 – $46
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! “Body Awareness” a Hit at Main Stage West – by Barry Willis

Body Awareness Week becomes a long hard slog for a psychology professor at a small Vermont college, in Annie Baker’s brilliant, sweet comedy at Main Stage West through September 22.

Lydia Revelos stars as Phyllis, the professor with ultra-orthodox feminist convictions, who first organized the event as “Eating Disorders Week” but expanded it to include dance performances by troupes from across the globe, and seminars on personal and social perceptions about the human body—in particular, the female body. This emphasis includes an exhibition of photos of nude women of all ages, done by a straight male photographer.

The photos, their subjects, and most of all the photographer’s gender, enrage her and cause upheaval with her lesbian partner Joyce (Nancy Prebilich), a high school teacher whose almost-adult son Jared is “on the Asperger’s spectrum” as it’s trendy to say. Jared (Elijah Pinkham) is a self-described “auto didact” obsessed with word origins—he aspires to be a lexicographer—and sex with girls, which he has never experienced. His awkward social skills exasperate his mother and her partner, get him fired from his minimum-wage job at McDonald’s, and nearly land him in jail when he does something incredibly inappropriate with a girl he’s just met.

Main Stage West company principal Elizabeth Craven perfectly captures life in small-town Vermont…

Domestic disruption grows exponentially with the appearance of photographer Frank (Zachary Tendick), a surprise guest in their home for the week. Phyllis can’t stand him nor what he does as an artist—the “male gaze” being the equivalent of an assault, in her view—nor can she understand why women flock to him to be immortalized in photos. She has rigid ideas about how women should present themselves. Joyce, on the other hand, finds him charming, likes his art, and welcomes him as a mentor to Jared.

Pinkham, Revelos, Prebilich, and Tendick at work for MSW.

The four characters form a tight pulsating web that in just under two hours examines self-concept, identity, commitment, family, and personal and artistic freedom. Playwright Baker—known for skewering Vermont’s politically correct culture—treats all of this with a fine blend of disdain, humor, and sympathy.

Prebilich and Revelos at work in “Body Awareness”

Directors John Shillington and Janine Sternlieb get marvelous performances from all four performers. Revelos and Prebilich are exceptional in exploring the breadth of their characters’ emotional lives, while Pinkham does a wonderful job in a role that more-or-less repeats one he did in last year’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.” Tendick, in his first appearance on stage, anchors the whole affair with a surprising amount of gravitas.

With her set design and costumes, Main Stage West company principal Elizabeth Craven perfectly captures life in small-town Vermont. She also happens to have directed the astounding “Eureka Day,” running concurrently with “Body Awareness.”

The two shows’ related themes make them an ideal pair for back-to-back viewing. If there were such a thing as a perfectly-matched theatrical double feature they’d be it. Both provide plenty of laughs and plenty to ponder once the laughter fades.

 

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionBody Awareness
Written byAnnie Baker
Directed byJohn Shillington and Janine Sternlieb
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Sept. 22nd
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$0 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Ross Valley Players Catch Tremendous Show in The Mousetrap – by Cari Lynn Pace

Evan Held as Giles Ralston at RVP.

This whodunit? play is so well-loved that Ross Valley Players sold out their opening night and had to bring in extra chairs. For good reason. This character-driven and exciting play keeps the audience guessing – and delightfully entertained.

Agatha Christie, that prolific mystery author, stipulated that film and television rights to The Mousetrap could not be sold until the London production closed. The Mousetrap opened 67 years ago and set the record for the longest-running stage play anywhere.

Director Adrian Elfenbaum skillfully controls the action and pacing of this true murder mystery, with a cast of actors who go over-the-top in their roles and accents.

The action is nonstop, the clues fly everywhere, and the ending has the typical Agatha Christie twist.

Welcome to an English bed-and-breakfast manor as the new and inexperienced owners, charmingly enacted by Heather Buck and Evan Held, anxiously await their very first guests. As they plump the pillows, the wireless (Brit for radio) is reporting a recent murder in London.

Tori Truss as Mrs. Boyle; Maria Mikheyenko as Miss Casewell at Ross Valley Players.

The fun begins with the arrival of an outrageously enthusiastic guest played by Andre Amarotico. He’s followed shortly by a prune-faced spinster, beautifully acted by Tori Truss who captures every disdainfully arched eyebrow imaginable. She’s annoyingly critical and a good balance for Steve Price, the proper Major and helpful gentleman. Maria Mikheyenko poses as the next arrival, an odd and clever young woman with indeterminate plans for the future.

The final guest is one without a reservation, claiming his car was stuck in the snow. Robert Molossi arrives with no luggage and a heavy accent, immediately arousing suspicions by all.

The wireless chirps an update on the recent murder, and a local detective sergeant (Steven Samp) arrives to alert and interview the guests. The connections between the guests, the manor house owners, and the London murder develop in scene after scene. Suddenly, the lights are out and one of the guests is dead. A piercing scream (kudos to Heather Buck), cut telephone lines, and the chase … begins. But whodunit?

Heather Buck as Molly Ralston; Evan Held as Giles Ralston at work in ‘The Mousetrap’

No spoilers will come from this reviewer! The play has been a favorite not only for its puzzling mystery of the real killer, but for the fun to switch finger-pointing as more clues are revealed. The action is nonstop, the clues fly everywhere, and the ending has the typical Agatha Christie twist.

After the final curtain, a cast member announces “Now that we have seen The Mousetrap, you are our partners in crime. Please preserve the tradition to keep the secret of whodunit locked in your hearts.” It’s a worthy custom that will allow future audiences and generations to be caught up in The Mousetrap.

 

ASR Reviewer Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

ProductionThe Mousetrap
Written byAgatha Christie
Directed byAdrian Elfenbaum
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru October 13th.
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415. 456. 9555
Tickets$17 - $29
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW! Novato Theater Company Exposes Tragedies and Turmoil in “The Humans” — by Cari Lynn Pace

Photo by Fred Deneau

“The Humans” is a slice-of-life peek into a dysfunctional family’s Thanksgiving dinner. It starts with discord and never lets up. Fine performances by six Novato Theater Company actors rivet sharp-edged characters as they parry and thrust at one another.

Stephen Karam wrote his drama of three generations hiding secrets and resentments in a basement apartment (a great set by Michael Walraven). Add alcohol, irritating neighbors and faulty light bulbs to put this dinner on edge. Anyone want them as relatives?

Director Patrick Nims pulled fine performances from the actors to create cohesion from their criticisms. Brigid (Olivia Brown) is the youngest in this confrontational family. She starts out angry and stays that way, even when her helpful boyfriend (Ron Chapman) tries to be supportive. He doesn’t escape a grilling, of course.

“It was a challenge to memorize the gibberish in the script.”…

Brigid’s older sister Aimee (Alicia Kraft) has serious health and relationship turmoil, which she wisely keeps close to her vest. For sport, the sisters gang up to mock their mother (Laura J. Davies), reducing her to tears. Their father (David Francis Perry) gets shredded by both wife and daughters. It’s not pretty to watch, unless you’re fond of schadenfreude.

Marilyn Hughes, playing the frail and wheelchair-bound Momo, is particularly convincing. Her character doesn’t do or say much to provoke anyone, so her family mostly ignores her. Hughes notes offstage “It was a challenge to memorize the gibberish in the script.”

“The Humans” runs for 90 minutes, with no intermission, and contains adult themes and language.

ASR Reviewer Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionThe Humans
Written byStephen Karam
Directed byPatrick Nims
Producing CompanyNovato Theater Company
Production DatesThrough Sept. 29th
Production AddressNovato Theater Company
5420 Nave Drive, Novato 94949
WebsiteNovatoTheaterCompany.org
Telephone
Tickets$21 – $27
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Laughter Proves Contagious in “Eureka Day” – by Nicole Singley

The Cast of “Eureka Day” (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

When an outbreak of the mumps sends shockwaves through an avant-garde Berkeley charter school, parents with opposing views on vaccination struggle to uphold the school’s core principles of inclusion and government by consensus. The stakes are high and the tensions higher in this first-rate production of Jonathan Spector’s whip-smart “Eureka Day,” an award-winning comedy that first took audiences by storm last year at Berkeley’s own Aurora Theatre Company.

Eureka Day is exactly the kind of ultra-progressive school one would expect to find in Berkeley. Diversity is celebrated, alternative lifestyles and gender-neutral pronouns are embraced, and board meetings conclude with an inspirational reading set to the chime of Tibetan tingsha cymbals. It’s so Berkeley, in fact, that we open on the school’s Executive Committee deliberating whether “transracial adoptee” should be added to the list of ethnic identities on student registration forms. With unanimity required to pass any resolution, this proves only the first of many drawn-out discussions.

Rendered impotent by their quest for consensus, the group’s leaders are paralyzed by political correctness, so worried about saying the wrong thing they often struggle to say anything at all. It’s at once hysterical and exasperating to watch these perfectly-crafted, superbly-acted, and all-too-recognizable modern archetypes turn every molehill on the meeting agenda into a long-winded tightrope walk between mountains. It would play like a brilliant piece of satire if it weren’t so true to life. In either case, it’s wildly funny.

L-R: Yamamoto, Sinckler, Coté, and McKereghan (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

And then the bombshell drops. A case of the mumps has been confirmed, and perhaps unsurprisingly at a school of this sort, a large percentage of the students are unvaccinated. A quarantine is issued and school policies are called into question. When the committee hosts what begins as a cordial “Community Activated Conversation” with school parents via Facebook Live, it’s only a matter of time until the adults begin to act like children, the forum rapidly devolving into utter mayhem as a storm of angry rants, barbed remarks and uproarious emojis are projected on the set’s back wall above the huddled actors.

. . . a top-notch production of a masterfully written piece of theater, as timely and thought-provoking as it is hilarious . . .”

Though vaccination serves as the catalyst here, larger questions loom about how we move forward when agreement becomes impossible, how we manage to separate fact and fiction in our modern world, whether all perspectives are equally valid or deserving of respect, and where the limits of social responsibility exist when weighing community impact against individual risk and personal beliefs. While Spector’s own stance is fairly conspicuous, his script does justice to conflicting viewpoints. There are good intentions, after all, on both sides of the fence – and playground bullies, for that matter, too.

Jeff Coté as Don (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Jeff Coté is excellent as hyper-considerate headmaster Don with his noncommittal list making and new-agey Rumi quotations. Equally superb is Sarah McKereghan as longtime board member and grown-up flower child Suzanne, who proclaims to prize inclusion and respect for all perspectives – until she finds her own perspective challenged. So convinced of her own thoughtfulness and moral superiority, Suzanne fails to recognize the hypocrisy of her assumptions and offensive remarks. McKereghan brings nuance and depth to a challenging role, harnessing the frantic energy of a well-meaning mother in denial.

Val Sinckler as Carina (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

The group is rounded out by wavering mother Meiko (Eiko Yamamoto), stay-at-home father and original Google employee Eli (Rick Eldredge), who holds progressive views on marital monogamy and catches up on his yoga practice during meetings, and newcomer Carina (Val Sinckler), a sharp-witted black lesbian and the mother of a boy with special needs, who we quickly glean has been invited to join the committee in the interest of promoting diversity. All are outstanding in complex roles, though Sinckler shines brightest as the anchor and voice of enduring reason. The interactions between Sinckler and McKereghan are especially compelling, bringing humanity to both sides of a contentious and deeply divisive debate.

Hats off to director Elizabeth Craven for thoughtful staging and pitch-perfect pacing, allowing tension to build and all the laughs to land while leaving space for somber moments and heavier dialogue. Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen have designed a beautiful and believable set complete with shelves full of library books, child-sized tables and chairs, and posters that resonate with the school’s core values. Well-paired songs elicit laughter between scenes thanks to Jessica Johnson’s clever sound design.

It’s a top-notch production of a masterfully written piece of theater, as timely and thought-provoking as it is hilarious, with a side-splitting first act that builds into a frenzy and then unfolds into an unexpectedly moving and empathetic second chapter. Guaranteed to keep your wheels turning long after the actors make their exit, “Eureka Day” will leave you questioning whether consensus is worthwhile or even possible in the digital age of relentless misinformation and incompatible opinions. Be sure to catch it (the show, that is) at Spreckels Performing Arts Center through September 22nd.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

 

ProductionEureka Day
Written byJonathan Spector
Directed byElizabeth Craven
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough September 22nd
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$10-$24
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Big Silly Fun in Cinnabar’s “Little Shop of Horrors” – by Barry Willis

Photo by Vero Kherian.

Roger Corman’s 1960 low-budget comedy/horror flick “The Little Shop of Horrors” is a classic of the genre. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was a staple of late-night TV, inspiring an adaptation as a stage musical by Howard Ashman, with music by Alan Menken.

It’s been in continual production somewhere since it debuted in 1982, for good reasons. The story is cheesy, the characters are as broadly drawn as possible, and the music is absolutely infectious—think “Rocky Horror Show” meets “Grease.” Cinnabar’s current production of “Little Shop” is a tremendously high-energy treatment of this All-American classic, directed by Nathan Cummings and choreographed by Bridget Codoni, running through September 22.

The little shop is Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists, a failing retail business in a decrepit part of the city. Proprietor Mr. Mushnik (played with palpable fatigue and despair by Michael Van Why) prays for a miracle to keep his doors open. His hoped-for miracle appears when needed most— in the form of a carnivorous plant developed by Mushnik’s nerdy assistant Seymour Krelborn (Equity actor Michael McGurk).

Since its intro in 1982, American audiences can’t get enough schlocky story telling entertainment…

The presence of the plant in the shop generates astounding public interest for reasons that no one questions. Seymour names the plant “Audrey II” in honor of his co-worker Audrey (Sidney Raey-Gonzales), a sweetly reticent girl in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist, Dr. Orin Scrivello (Keith Baker, superb in multiple roles).

 

Seymour discovers by accident that the plant thrives on human flesh and blood — and that it speaks, demanding to be fed. Each feeding causes huge spurts in the plant’s aggressiveness and size—it goes from a “strange and interesting” thing in a small pot in the shop’s window to an enormous all-consuming monster that can devour a human in one gulp.

Mushnik’s business enjoys phenomenal growth in direct proportion to the plant’s, from selling a handful of posies each day to supplying all the flowers for the Rose Bowl Parade. Seymour undergoes a similar transition, from perpetually unnoticed back-room nobody to pop star, winning Audrey in the process. Her botanical namesake has solved multiple problems, but as in all monster lore — indeed, as in much of human life — the law of unintended consequences kicks in. Audrey II (voiced by Michelle Pagano, puppetry by Zane Walters — both excellent) becomes a massive problem. Solving it becomes Seymour’s new challenge.

Micheal McGurk as Seymour. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

The show’s patently ridiculous dramatic arc is further exaggerated by plenty of upbeat pop music, beautifully sung by Raey-Gonzales, McGurk, Baker, and the “doo-wop girls”: Ronette, Crystal and Chiffon (Selena Elize Flores, Aja Gianola-Norris, and Olivia Newbold, respectively). The trio’s harmonies are marvelous; the three are equally entertaining whether dolled up as an early ’60s girl group or in grunge mode as street urchins, and they nail the choreography. “Somewhere That’s Green,” a sweet invocation of idealized 1950s’ suburban living, is delivered with shimmering conviction by Raey-Gonzales. It’s the emotional high point of the first act.

The Doo-Wop Girls and Dr Scrivello. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Baker clearly relishes going over the top as the hyper-caffeinated, charming-but-evil Dr. Scrivello. The ultra-kinetic McGurk is absolutely in his element as Seymour. Raey-Gonzales is commanding as Audrey, with a Brooklyn accent that never falters, even when she’s singing.

Peter Q. Parish has conjured a facile set serving as florist shop and city street, needing only a few brief changes from scene to scene. Their brevity helps propel this quick-moving musical—less than two hours including a fifteen-minute intermission. Hilarious and enthralling from beginning to end, this “Little Shop of Horrors” is an entertainment bargain certain to sell out fast. It’s simply big silly fun, fabulously well done.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionLittle Shop of Horrors
Written byWritten by Howard Ashman, from the screenplay by Charles Griffith
Directed byDirected by Nathan Cummings.

Assisted by Cecelia Hamilton.
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Sept. 22nd
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$30 – $45
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

AN ASR PREVIEW! Think the Marin Symphony is for Stuffed Shirts? Think again! – by Cari Lynn Pace

Each fall, the Marin Symphony showcases light classical music to entice and delight in a program often referred to as a “Pops Concert.”

This latest show promises to blow the roof off the stodgy Marin Center Veterans Memorial Auditorium as they perform the eye-popping “Cirque de la Symphonie” in concert with half-a-dozen Cirque du Soleil-style performers. Aerial flyers, gymnasts, and strongmen take the stage in front of (and high above) the orchestra of black-suited classical musicians. The moment conductor Stuart Chafetz whisks his baton, an amazing fusion of sights and sounds fills the concert hall.

…Leave the starched shirts at home.

Look up above as powerful and lithe bodies dance and fly in sparkling bodysuits and glowing silk streamers. The orchestra ripples their bows across violins, violas, and cellos as gold-painted strongmen balance in muscle-rippling symmetry. Flutes flutter, drums pound out the beat, and the Marin Symphony seems inspired by the fluid movement of these international performers. Or is it the other way around?

The musical program includes favorites from Dvorak’s “Carnival,” Bizet’s “Les Toreadors,” Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”, Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” and other familiar classics.

With so many pieces, the musicians have to keep their eyes on their sheet music, and on the conductor. They can only steal glances at the Cirque de la Symphonie’s troupe of awe-inspiring acrobats, founded ten years ago by Alexander Streltzov. We’re fortunate that Marin is one stop on their nationwide pops tour. “I’m thrilled to be part of the Marin Symphony’s family as its first Principal Pops conductor,” Chafetz enthused. It’s a stunning start!

Performances are September 14 and 15 with tickets priced $25-$85 (Youth tickets $20). For more information go to: https://marinsymphony.org/fall-pops-cirque/ or call the Marin Center Box Office at 415-473-6800.

ASR Reviewer Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW! Merry Wives of Windsor Gain the Upper Hand – by Cari Lynn Pace

Summer and Shakespeare go together like fudge sauce on ice cream. To put the cherry on top, make it an outdoor presentation reminiscent of the London Globe Theatre’s open-air venue. The Curtain Theatre, performing in the Old Mill Park Amphitheatre in downtown Mill Valley, does exactly that. Now in their 20th year, this award-winning troupe presents Merry Wives of Windsor among towering redwoods through Sunday, September 8th.

The Curtain Theatre experience envelopes their audience in the late 1500’s. Absent the plastic chairs and jet streams visible overhead, the scene in this majestic redwood grove transforms time. A quartet of musicians in period garb quietly plays original songs written by Music Director Don Clark and Hal Hughes. The air fills with sounds of a fiddle, tin whistle, concertina, and other quaint instruments. Children scamper about the soft ground while adults pour their libations and chat. Costumed and bewigged actors, (authentically designed by Kathy Kingman-Solum and Hope Carrillo) beckon patrons to available seats.

…Grey Wolf is ridiculously perfect as Falstaff, charming and powerful and capable of stealing any scene on the stage…

The Curtain Theatre has no curtain, so Producer/Choreographer (and duo-role actor) Steve Beecroft grandly welcomes all from the front of the stage. Merry Wives of Windsor’s multi-layered plot focuses on a young maiden, Mistress Anne Page (lovely Lilly Jackson), who has attracted the eye of several suitors. Each suitor has his personal champion, including Anne’s parents who advocate differing preferences for their daughter’s match. As with much of Shakespeare’s plays, it takes a while to catch on to all the characters and their relationships.

Gray Wolf and friends at work for Curtain Theatre

Enter lustful Sir John Falstaff, who boasts of his intentions to seduce not merely one, but two of his acquaintances’ wives, one of whom is Anne’s mother. Grey Wolf is ridiculously perfect as Falstaff, charming and powerful and capable of stealing any scene on the stage. When the wives get wind of his plans, they team up to plot their amusing revenge. Heather Cherry and Marianne Shine make a formidable duo, outmaneuvering Falstaff and even exacting better behavior from their clueless husbands.

Director Kim Bromley notes “The central theme of this play is power, who wields it, who wants it, and who gets it.” Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor is lengthy and uneven in spots, yet ultimately allows women to gain the upper hand in a period of time when such was certainly not the norm.

The City of Mill Valley was recently under pressure from several nearby neighbors to curtail The Curtain Theatre and other public noise-producing events in Old Mill Park, site of the Mill Valley Fall Arts Festival and the Dipsea Race. Happily, Steve Beecroft reports that performances have been adjusted to mollify neighbors yet continue with these free weekend performances. To that end, all may shout “Huzzah!” Not too loudly, please.

Playing at 2 PM through September 8th on Saturdays and Sundays and Labor Day Monday. Admission is FREE. For more information surf the web over to: www.curtaintheatre.org.

Open seating, picnics welcome, cookies and coffee available for purchase, and chairs are provided on a first-come basis, or bring your own. Dress in layers as this redwood grove is always much cooler than the street level.

ASR Reviewer Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionMerry Wives of Windsor
Written byWilliam Shakespeare
Directed byKim Bromley
Producing CompanyCurtain Theatre
Production DatesThrough Sept. 8th
Production AddressOld Mill Park Amphitheater.

375 Throckmorton Avenue (behind the library), Mill Valley
Websitewww.curtaintheatre.org
Telephone
TicketsFree!
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! “Cabaret” a Bawdy Cautionary Tale at SF Playhouse – by Barry Willis

The Kit Kat dancers at SF Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Every summer, San Francisco Playhouse revives a classic musical and runs it all season long. It’s a brilliant marketing ploy leveraging Union Square tourist traffic, one that gives company principals a breather to prepare for an intense fall/winter schedule. The company’s current offering is a splendid take on Kander and Ebbs’s “Cabaret,” through September 14.

It’s one of several iterations of “Cabaret” to pop up recently in the Bay Area, thanks to the Trump presidency and its supporters. SFP’s bawdy effort is both wonderfully entertaining and horrifically startling—a cautionary tale about the rise of pure evil among seemingly nice friendly people, such as Ernst Ludwig (Will Springhorn, Jr.), the charming German businessman who befriends American novelist Cliff Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin) on a train ride into Berlin.

Cate Heyman as Sally Bowles works SF Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Ludwig introduces Bradshaw to Fraulein Schneider (Jennie Brick), proprietress of a rooming house where he soon takes up residence, and to the Kit Kat Klub, the cabaret of the show’s title. There he meets many denizens of Berlin’s cultural underworld, including the fetching Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman), a flighty British singer with whom he’s soon head over heels and sharing a room, both to his regret.

…if you haven’t seen it, make it a priority. If you have, it’s worth revisiting.

Many of the songs in this show made it into the pop repertoire, thanks to the commercial success of the 1972 movie: “Wilkommen,” “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Maybe This Time,” “Cabaret,” “Money,” and “Married,” a lovely duet performed by Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell), the fruit seller to whom Schneider gets engaged, both of them in late middle age. It’s a lilting note of hope in a show that’s ultimately and intentionally a very bitter pill buried in a thick coating of sugar. Herr Schultz is in deep denial about the rising tide of anti-Semitism, believing that as a native-born German Jew he will be considered a German first. Schneider knows better, and so does Bradshaw.

Jennie Brick and Louis Parnell as Schneider and Schultz. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

But the sugar is sweet and seductive. The Kit Kat Klub’s Master of Ceremonies is convincingly portrayed by John Paul Gonzalez, whose high-energy genderbending is the motive force behind most of the show’s many song-and-dance numbers (choreography by Nicole Helfer), performed by a tremendous ensemble, with music from an ace band under the direction of Dave Dobrusky.

Susi Damilano’s dynamic stage direction is first-rate, as is Jacquelyn Scott’s set design, but what sets this “Cabaret” apart from other very good productions is Cate Hayman as Sally Bowles. A theater student at Carnegie Mellon University (as is Atticus Shaindlin), Heyman brings a depth to her character that other performers have missed. Sally Bowles is usually portrayed as an annoying self-centered airhead, and Heyman encompasses that, but her Sally has an implied backstory that makes her much more substantial than most. Heyman is the best Sally Bowles this reviewer has ever seen.

Also superb is Abby Haug as Fraulien Kost, a resident at Fraulien Schneider’s who earns her living entertaining sailors by the hour. Haug and Heyman will prove justification for many ticket buyers. “Cabaret” at SF Playhouse runs a couple more weeks—if you haven’t seen it, make it a priority. If you have, it’s worth revisiting.

 

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionCabaret
Written byWritten by Joe Masteroff

Music by John Kander and Fred Eb
Directed bySusi Damilano
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru Sept. 14th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30-$100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! — “Those Dancin’ Feet” Kicks It Up a Notch — by Cari Lynn Pace

PHOTO: Those Dancin’ Feet_61 – L to R Alex Hartman and Colin Bradbury (dancers) and Kayley Anne Collins and Neil Starkenberg (vocals).
Photo by Ray Mabry / © R. Mabry Photography 2019

Transcendence Theatre Company (TTC) has presented productions “under the stars” at Sonoma’s Jack London State Historic Park for eight summer seasons. This award-winning troupe has grown from the dream of its three founders to encompass over 50 singers and dancers taking a break from their Broadway and LA shows.

Their successful “Broadway Under the Stars” formula has traditionally been a potpourri of popular song-and-dance numbers. This year TTC experiments by adding a casual plot line to “Those Dancin’ Feet” to link the dance numbers. It works, splendidly. The show runs through August 25.

The experience at “Broadway Under the Stars” is top notch…

It starts with three couples who move with agile beauty through stages of courtship and commitment. Their ‘alter egos’ sing of passion, longing, joy, sadness, and despair. The program cleverly sprinkles a mix of 29 songs —some from decades past, some today’s Grammy winners — and everything flows and moves in a seamless and splendid reflection of love and life.

The experience at “Broadway Under the Stars” is top notch, with the production enhanced by the Transcendence Band conducted by Matt Smart.

PHOTO: Those Dancin’ Feet_262 – L to R Dee Tomasetta, Croix Dilenno and Cara Salemo.
Photo by Ray Mabry / © R. Mabry Photography 2019

There are so many intricate dance numbers that Director/Choreographer Roy Lightner is joined by choreographers Sara Brians and Chip Abbott. They showcase 20 athletic and fluid dancers, and the result is over the top.

TTC evenings, traditionally touted as the “Best night ever!” start as early as 5 p.m. at Jack London State Historic Park. Patrons bring picnics to enjoy at the umbrella-equipped tables, food trucks ply their wares, premium wine and beer vendors offer tastes, and live music encourages the fun and friendly camaraderie in the open field —  known amusingly as “The Great Lawn.”

Outdoor seating (assigned) begins in the stone ruins as the sun drops low beyond the mountains. Just before the show starts at 7:30, put away your sun hat, grab a jacket and lap blanket, and revel in the quiet beauty of the Valley of the Moon. When the lights come up on the dancers onstage, prepare to be blown away!

ASR Reviewer Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionThose Dancin' Feet
Written byTranscendence Theater Co.
Directed byRoy Lightner
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThrough August 25th
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, Glen Ellen (Sonoma)
Websitebestnightever.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$49-$154
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! MSC’s “Spamalot” a Masterful Madcap Musical – by Cari Lynn Pace

In its 30 years, Marin Shakespeare Company has never presented a full-scale musical. Until now.

The second production in Marin Shakespeare Company’s summer trio of shows, “Spamalot” is the musical comedy written by Eric Idle and “lovingly ripped off” from the zany motion picture “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Take Idle’s wit, add John DuPrez’s music, mix in seven musicians, and toss in juicy bits from the madcap screenplay. Sprinkle in new sight gags and you have a riotous musical comedy.

Replete with several outstanding comic performances, “Spamalot” loosely spoofs “Camelot,” the King Arthur legend of Medieval England. Jarion Monroe stars as the would-be “King of the Britons,” who traipses about the countryside with his loyal talking horse Patsy (Bryan Munar), trying to convince hapless peasants to join him in a quest to find the Holy Grail and thereby somehow unite the country.

… a huge production that’s one fast roller-coaster ride of laughter.

The familiarity of several characters fades quickly as the plot takes their character arcs in unpredictable directions. Nonsensical scenes and characters are amusingly disjointed, including one particularly assertive Black Knight (spoiler alert!). The show is full of clever sight gags, hysterical physical comedy, and tons of goofy banter—the Lady of the Lake (Susan Zelinsky), who gives Arthur his mandate and his magic sword Excalibur—is described by one doubtful peasant as “a watery tart.” One hesitates to laugh too long for fear of missing what comes next.

Phillip Percy Williams as Sir Robin with Chorus at Marin Shakes

Michael Berg’s colorful costumes are over the top—reportedly totaling 700 pieces if you count each sock and shoe. Choreography by Rick Wallace is the kinetic equivalent, especially some of the large-scale production numbers. You can’t beat a bevy of chorus girls swinging maces for sheer entertainment. The excellent band led by Mountain Play veteran Paul Smith propels the whole affair from just in front of center stage.

Joseph Patrick O’Malley, a languid and fluid actor who first steals his scene with “I’m Not Dead Yet,” pops up in multiple ridiculous guises. The gorgeous Zelinsky sings with power and prominence in Act I, then disappears only to show up in Act II wearing a Norma Desmond-like caftan and turban, wailing “Whatever Happened to My Part?” while “The Song that Goes Like This” will be all too familiar to audience members who’ve seen their share of modern musicals. The finale tune “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” has the audience whistling along while the chorus line kicks up its boots. Truly a marvelous madcap romp.

Award-winning Marin Shakespeare Company is run by two tireless founders, Robert Currier and Lesley Schisgall Currier, who present an annual trio of outdoor productions at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, on the Dominican College campus in San Rafael. One of the three is classic Shakespeare, one is “Shakespeare light” with alternative settings and language, and the third is a production far removed from the Bard’s influence, such as “Spamalot.” All are professionally and energetically presented by a mix of Equity actors and solid local talent, with interns in minor roles.

Director Robert Currier has a long history of updating Shakespearean comedies with unexpected adornments to plot, character, and setting. With “Spamalot,” he started with an outrageous script, and through superb choices in casting and direction has come up with a huge production that’s one fast roller-coaster ride of laughter. Don’t sit too close to the stage if you want to catch every line.

MSC has established a fine legacy among theatre-lovers from both sides of the curtain. Open seating (wooden benches with backs) can be made more comfortable by renting cushions at the gate. Nights can get cold when the fog rolls in, so dress in layers. Picnics are welcome.

ASR Reviewer Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionMonty Python’s Spamalot
Written byBook & Lyrics by Eric Idle.
Music by John Du Prez & Eric Idle
Directed byDirected by Robert Currier
Producing CompanyMarin Shakespeare Company
Production DatesThrough August 25th
Production AddressForest Meadows Amphitheater (outdoors),
Dominican University of California 890 Belle Avenue, San Rafael, CA
Websitewww.marinshakespeare.org
Telephone(415) 499-4488
Tickets$10 – $38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! – “My Fair Lady” Isn’t Fair, It’s Loverly! Oversize Production is a Hit on Their Undersize Stage – by Cari Lynn Pace

The cast of “My Fair Lady” at work. Photos courtesy of Eric Chazankin.

In a bold move, Sonoma Arts Live removed 12 seats from the floor of their narrow theatre to make space for a London street scene. As the house lights go down, a certain cockney flower girl mingles with other back-alley workers awaiting the evening swells in tuxes and top hats. Scruffy Eliza Doolittle crosses paths with Professor Henry Higgins, and thus begins the delightful story of “My Fair Lady”. This energetic and rousing adaptation of the famed movie and stage musical by Lerner and Loewe is playing on the Rotary Stage at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center through July 28th.

Michael Ross directs an incredibly outsize production in this small and intimate theater. If you sit in the front row, you’d best pull in your legs as the high-stepping dancers rush by. The seven-piece orchestra, directed by F. James Raasch, is completely hidden behind the raised stage, opulently decorated as a two-story English drawing room with gramophone and fireplace.

Impish Sarah Wintermeyer reveals her golden singing voice and sweet face to create an irresistible Eliza. What talent!

When Eliza, a yowling flower girl, comes to call seeking language lessons, the game is on. Larry Williams brings forth arrogant Professor Higgins with a much better voice than Rex Harrison ever didn’t have. He and Colonel Pickering, a well-cast Chad Yarish, make a wager that the dirty, lowly street urchin could be transformed to pass as a real lady in six months if she only learned to speak as one.

And the flower girl? Impish Sarah Wintermeyer reveals her golden singing voice and a sweet face to create an irresistible Eliza. What talent! Before our eyes, she transforms from a sooty guttersnipe into an elegant lady, dressed for the ball. Cinderella could take lessons from her.

Speaking of dressing, Barbara McFadden’s costumes are a real treat, from garbage men and serving maids to elegant grey Ascot tuxes and outsize flowered hats. Simply marvelous!

Alfred P. Doolittle (Tim Setzer) sings “Get Me to the Church on Time” at Sonoma Arts Live. Photos courtesy of Eric Chazankin.

Several of the 12 actors fill multiple roles, and all sing and move in a smooth-flowing ensemble. A big favorite is Tim Setzer, who seems born for his hilarious role as Alfred P. Doolittle. His knockout songs “With a Little Bit of Luck” and “Get Me to the Church on Time” bring the house down. Ryan Hook shows a fine tenor voice when he croons “On the Street Where You Live” at Eliza’s doorway.

Executive Artistic Producer Jaime Love notes “We are thrilled to close our 2019 season with this timeless and iconic classic.” The entire family will enjoy this oversize production on this undersize stage.

ASR Reviewer Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

 

ProductionMy Fair Lady!
Written byBook by Alan Jay Lerner. Music and Lyrics by Lerner & Frederick Loewe.
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Stacy Ross Shines in “Year of Magical Thinking” – by Barry Willis

Stacy Ross at work at the Aurora Theatre. Photo courtesy Aurora Theatre Co

Anyone who’s read Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” might wonder how anyone could turn the book into a play. The answer is that only the author could do it, or at least, do it right. Prolific essayist, novelist, and screenwriter, Didion accomplishes the seemingly impossible in her one-woman/one-act play at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, through July 28.

On a stage and backdrop of what appear to be huge Travertine slabs (set by Kent Dorsey) Stacy Ross shines as she relates Didion’s horrific, heartbreaking tale of suddenly losing her husband and collaborator, writer John Gregory Dunne, while their adopted daughter was in a coma. Among the very best actors in the Bay Area, Ross fully inhabits the story without attempting to be Didion—an astute decision by her and director Nancy Carlin. Ross and Didion are as physically unlike as possible.

…brilliantly interwoven with sweet reminiscences of family life…

No one is ever prepared for a sudden loss, of course, and the shock of it is the running theme throughout the production’s ninety well-paced minutes. Ross opens with a recitation lifted almost verbatim from the book’s first chapter—about how Dunne collapsed as the author was preparing dinner, the arrival of paramedics, a panicky trip to the emergency room, and the inevitable aftermath. Even in shock and overwhelmed by sorrow, Didion can’t help injecting self-deprecating humor and ironic observation—she stands in line with insurance card in hand, because it seems the proper thing to do, and in the ER, she’s introduced to her husband’s momentary physician, whom she can’t resist describing as “a pre-teen in a white lab coat.”

The social circumstances of death get full vetting, brilliantly interwoven with sweet reminiscences of family life in Malibu and New York. But it’s the interior monolog that’s most compelling—an examination of pretending to go about the daily business of life while knowingly indulging in self-deception and compulsive rituals in the secret hope that all that’s happened can somehow be altered—the “magical thinking” of the title.

This solo production is an understated masterful performance that seamlessly blends lecture, confession, and conversation. In her book and play, Didion eloquently managed to encompass all of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous stages of dying—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—stages that apply not only to the terminally ill but to their survivors. Stacy Ross is brilliant in conveying a narrative whose subject will inevitably touch all of us.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionYear of Magical Thinking
Written byJoan Didion
Directed byNancy Carlin
Producing CompanyAurora Theater Co.
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressAurora Theater Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone510.843.4822
Tickets$49 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! One Singular Sensation: “A Chorus Line” – by Cari Lynn Pace

“A Chorus Line” cast (Photo courtesy of Transcendence Theatre Company)

Every summer through September, friends flock to one of four different “Broadway Under the Stars” shows: mix-and-mingle evenings full of fresh air, picnics, fine wines, stunning scenery, and professional singers and dancers. These extraordinary escapees from the bright lights of Broadway and LA have a single goal: to give patrons their “best night ever!” And they do!

Eight years ago a small circle of NYC and LA performers took the summer off and held a song-and-dance fundraiser in the open stone ruins of Jack London State Historic Park. Their first “Broadway Under the Stars” was so well attended it raised enough money to keep the park open.

Each year the three original members, Amy Miller, Brad Surosky, and Stephan Stubbins, recruit more high-energy performers and friends to join them. Today, with over 55 stellar performers, Transcendence is a family of talented dancers and singers who love performing on the beautiful open-air stage in Sonoma’s wine country. They’ve raised nearly $500,000 from ticket sales to keep the park open and are proud to bring performances and classes to local schools.

Transcendence delivers a knockout show at Jack London State Park.”

The first show in their summer lineup under the stars is the award-winning “A Chorus Line.” It couldn’t be a more appropriate choice for Transcendence. Based on actual interviews, the story is about a group of dancers anxiously trying out for limited spots in a Broadway show. Every one of the performers on stage no doubt went through countless such auditions. Now here they are, under the setting sun and rising moon, dancing and singing to win a part they’ve already joyously earned. This is life imitating life. It can’t get more real than this!

Kristin Piro and Matthew Rossoff (Photo courtesy of Transcendence Theatre Company)

About the Transcendence summer experience: Cast members exuberantly welcome Bay Area patrons who come early to the park for a pre-show dinner picnic under umbrellas. Local musicians entertain on a small stage while food trucks line the meadow. Beer and wine vendors offer tastes and glasses of their finest.

At 7:30, just before sunset, patrons gather up their picnic items (and extra jackets) to head for seats in the stone ruins. The orchestra’s pounding beat brings forth a stream of high-stepping performers who belt out songs with sleek moves and smiles against the background of Sonoma Mountain. Broadway never had such a stage setting!

Catch the stars in Sonoma’s Valley of the Moon in one of four upcoming summer shows:

“A Chorus Line” runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings through June 30th.

“Fantastical Family Night” for the youngest friends begins July 19th for one weekend through July 20th.

“Those Dancin’ Feet” features world-class dancing full of passion, energy, and excitement, backed by a full orchestra. This program runs August 9th through 25th.

The finale of the summer shows is “Gala Celebration” to complete Transcendence’s magic of music and community, for one weekend only September 6th, 7th and 8th.

ASR reviewer Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionA Chorus Line
Written byBook by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante; Music by Marvin Hamlisch; Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Directed byAmy Miller
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThrough June 30th
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, Glen Ellen
Websitebestnightever.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$49-$154
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Drumming With Anubis” Wildly Entertaining at Left Edge Theatre – by Barry Willis

Mark Bradbury (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

In the galaxy of theater, the convergence of brilliant concept and brilliant execution occurs all too rarely. When it does, it’s a thing of beauty and wonder and a cause for celebration, like a solar eclipse or a blue moon.

At Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through June 30, David Templeton’s “Drumming With Anubis” is all this and more. A poignant, hilarious exercise in magical realism, it finds a group of middle-aged geeks camped out on the edge of the desert, there for a weekend of male empowerment, macho drumming, personal confessions, and recollections about the glory days of head-banging heavy metal rock. Founded by a recently departed drummer named Joshua Tree, the Neo-Heathen Male Bonding and Drumming Society has gathered in part to lay Josh’s ashes to rest, and to welcome a new member to its fold—a mysterious and reticent fellow they call simply “New Bitch” (Mark Bradbury).

The similarity to the new recruit’s nickname and the name of the Eqyptian god of death and mummification is no coincidence, of course, and the connection becomes increasingly clear as the story moves on—something it does with panache and superb pacing under the direction of David L. Yen, who somehow managed to balance rehearsals and performances of the excellent “Faceless” at 6th Street Playhouse with rehearsals of “Drumming.”

. . . the most near-perfect production you’re likely to see this summer.”

Pallaziol, Sholley, Martinez, and Schloemp (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

Yen may have gone without sleep for weeks while doing this, but the results are exemplary—a very funny production delicately seasoned with moments of profound personal truth. Chris Schloemp stars as the group’s leader, a kilt-wearing electrical contractor named “Chick” who as a not-quite-successful drummer has lived a large part of his life in Josh’s shadow. Anthony Martinez is his sidekick “Bull,” a gruff-voiced barbeque entrepreneur given to dressing like a Harley rider, but a man with deep insecurities about his masculinity. Then there’s “Stingray” (Richard Pallaziol), a twice-divorced alcoholic struggling to hang onto his third wife and his job as a manager of multiple sporting goods stores. Keeper of the group’s rules is Neil (Equity actor Nick Sholley), a “professor of pop culture” with failing knees, who has never recovered from the loss of his lover Alex. Altogether, they are an incredibly talented and superbly-balanced group of performers.

Miller and Martinez (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

The campers poke fun at their own and each other’s foibles, punctuating each heartfelt revelation or silly joke (revealing any would be unfair to playwright and patrons) with drum riffs and chants of “Balls deep!” while mourning the loss of their founder. Into their midst comes Nicky Tree (the feisty Ivy Rose Miller), Josh’s young widow, seeking not only her husband’s pilfered ashes but some substantial psychological restitution from the ragtag assemblage. How she gets it and what they get in return—both as individuals and as a group—is the driving force of the play’s second act, amplified by a continually-more-assertive Anubis. It’s a powerhouse combination of tremendous writing, acting, and direction, all of it on a delightfully plausible set by Argo Thompson, with gorgeous background projections by Schloemp.

Prolific journalist, critic, playwright, and North Bay national treasure, Templeton with this project has ventured out of the autobiographical mode that characterizes most of his prior work. It’s a fantastically successful effort carried out by a troupe of artists who truly understand and embrace his vision. You’ll howl with laughter but moments later may find yourself wiping tears away—an emotional rollercoaster that’s both thrilling ride and rock-solid reward. “Drumming With Anubis” may be the most near-perfect production you’re likely to see this summer.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionDrumming With Anubis
Written byDavid Templeton
Directed byDavid L. Yen
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough June 30th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: “Cabaret” a Solid Bet at Napa’s Lucky Penny – by Barry Willis

 

Ashley Garlick (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

The current American political climate has had some predictable consequences. Among them: a spate of theatrical revivals of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret,” a musical now in its 53rd year. The latest North Bay version runs at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions through June 16th.

The 1972 movie firmly established the show in pop culture—many people know the songs without understanding that the show itself isn’t a lightweight romp through the decadent underworld of Weimar Republic Berlin. The story’s time frame isn’t specific, but encompasses the rise of the Nazi party and increasingly virulent anti-Semitism. We often forget that the Nazi party was democratically elected, having gained popularity slowly but persistently throughout the late 1920s. By 1933 it was the most powerful political party in Germany. The parallels with Trump’s America are all too clear.

Directed by Ken Sonkin, this “Cabaret” is presented in shades of gray—except for the Nazi armbands, costumes by Rebecca Valentino are all black/white/gray. Lighting designer April George bathes the stage in flat yellowish light that gives the whole affair a grainy film-noir look. It’s an evocative effect but one that left this reviewer longing for more dramatic lighting, something that comes only late in the final act.

The core plot revolves around an itinerant American novelist, Cliff Bradshaw (a youngish Ryan Hook) befriended by German businessman Ernst Ludwig (F. James Raasch) on a train ride into Berlin. Ludwig knows the city intimately, and introduces Bradshaw to the Kit Kat Klub (the cabaret of the show’s title) and to Fraulein Schneider (Karen Pinomaki), proprietor of a rooming house where he takes up residence. At the club he meets a self-centered British songbird named Sally Bowles (a spirited Ashley Garlick). The two of them are soon deeply if contentiously involved.

Tim Setzer and Karen Pinomaki (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

A secondary love story involves Fraulein Schneider and fruit seller Herr Schultz (Tim Setzer), both of them in late middle age and deeply in love. The relationship between Bradshaw and Bowles is interestingly rocky and ultimately sort of pointless, but it’s the fate of Schneider and Schultz that hooks the audience. One of only three characters in the play who comprehend the inevitability of the approaching storm—the other two are Bradshaw and Ludwig—Schneider backs out of a late-in-life wedding, hoping to survive by “flying under the radar,” as we might say today. As stage director Michael Ross pointed out on opening night, Schneider and Shultz are the pair you’re rooting for. Setzer and Pinomaki are at the height of their considerable theatrical powers in conveying the sweetness and hopelessness of their characters’ relationship. The two are absolutely wonderful in this production.

The parallels with Trump’s America are all too clear.”

Denial of the obvious is a strong theme. As the tale progresses, the Nazi movement rises from potential menace to full tsunami, symbolized by a moment when the charming Herr Ludwig comes out of the political closet sporting a Nazi armband. Raasch is superb as the villainous but totally likeable true believer. Fraulein Schneider vows that maintaining a low profile will insure her survival; while Bradshaw tries desperately to get Bowles to leave Berlin with him—before it’s too late. Too hooked on minor league stardom to consider going elsewhere, she stays behind when he escapes to Paris. Herr Schultz is similarly clueless, believing that as a native-born German Jew he will be considered a German first. Setzer is magnificent in his portrayal of a kind-hearted man blinded by delusional hope.

Kirstin Pieschke and Brian Watson (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

The show-within-a-show is the burlesque in the Kit Kat Klub, stunningly produced and performed by its Emcee (Brian Watson, the cast’s only Equity actor). Watson is spectacular throughout, as is the live music from a strong four-piece band led by Craig Burdette. Barry Martin is excellent in several minor roles—as Max, the club’s owner; as an inspector on the Berlin-Paris train; and as a Nazi officer. Andrea Dennison-Laufer is very good as Fraulein Kost, a resident of Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house, who makes her living entertaining sailors by the hour. Staci Ariaga’s choreography is entertaining without being too difficult for the assorted Kit Kat girls, and boys.

Opening night was marred by too much stage smoke and sound effects that overwhelmed dialog—problems that we were assured would be corrected immediately. Fifty-some years after its debut, not much about this show will seem shocking other than its message. Unique to this production is a final dismissal to Nazi madness: the cast tossing their swastika-emblazoned armbands on the floor like so much trash. It’s a great directorial decision, and a really satisfying gesture—one performed with silent conviction that no words could emulate.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionCabaret
Written byMusic by John Kander and Fred Ebb; Book by Joe Masteroff
Directed byKen Sonkin; Music Directed by Craig Burdette
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough June 16th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Faceless” Brings Feisty Focus to Courtroom Drama – by Cari Lynn Pace

The cast of “Faceless” (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Live theatre can bring laughter or tears. You may leave feeling warm and fuzzy or puzzling over moral questions.

You’ll be immersed in all these vibrancies with “Faceless,” playing through June 2nd in the Studio Theatre at the 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa. This intimate theatre-in-the-round is the perfect cocoon for a courtroom clash. The audience is the jury, and the intense characters are ours to judge.

Susie (a hijab-wearing Isabella Sakkren) is a teen swept into the web of an internet ISIS “friend” and wooed into believing that she can be part of a new “family.” Arrested as she attempted to flee to Syria, she is now jailed and facing trial.

Susie’s dad, a hard-working single father (perfectly cast in Edward McCloud), still grieves the tragic loss of his wife. Was he so bound in his grief that he neglected to see his daughter becoming sullen and marginalized? Dad agonizes between consoling Susie and berating her for her empty extremism. He “mortgages the farm” to hire a top-notch defense attorney for his hostile daughter – a perfect role for Mike Pavone.

You may not want this 90-minute play to end.”

As for the prosecution, the lead attorney’s strategy (in spot-on acting by award-winning David L. Yen) is delightfully devilish. He theorizes that a female Muslim attorney on his staff would be the perfect choice for this touchy trial. He summons Claire (the lovely and spirited Ilana Niernberger) who wears her hijab with devotion, not faux faith.

David L. Yen (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

The dialog between these two attorneys is like watching rams clash. They slice through untouchable issues of religion, race, privilege, and predatory behavior with knife-sharpened repartee in an astonishing feat of writing by playwright Selina Fillinger. You may not want this 90-minute play to end. When it does, you alone will make the judgment call.

Director Craig A. Miller, former Artistic Director of the 6th Street Playhouse, worked two years to gain the rights to present “Faceless.” He has exercised impressive skill in staging the characters, enabling the audience to feel included in the courtroom drama.

ASR reviewer Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionFaceless
Written bySelina Fillinger
Directed byCraig A. Miller
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough June 2nd
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
Studio Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$18 – $28
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Cinderella” Delights at Spreckels – by Barry Willis

Law and Graham (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Move over, Disney.

An ancient fairy tale gets a modern reworking in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, through May 26. Classicists will be relieved to learn that the story’s essential elements are still intact: a poor abused girl who dreams of a better life, her domineering stepmother and two nasty stepsisters, a magical fairy godmother, a smitten prince, and the promise of miraculous transformations.

Cinderella’s hope of exchanging her rags for the gowns of a princess is an expression of a persistent human dream, very much like the popular urge to buy lottery tickets week after week despite astronomical odds against winning.

In Cinderella’s case, she actually succeeds—she finds Mr. Right, he finds her, and after much travail they live happily ever after. It’s a timeless story—the basis of almost every piece of “chick lit” ever written. The plain yellow pumpkin still becomes a golden carriage, but Douglas Carter Beane’s version adds a new character and subplot in an attempt to make the story more contemporary: a radical firebrand named Jean-Michel (Michael Coury Murdock), who seeks social justice and economic opportunity for everyone. Instead of having his head lopped off instantly, as would happen in most real threats to ruling class hegemony, he succeeds not only in winning the hand of a mean stepsister (converting her to a decent person in the process) but in getting the prince to agree to sweeping changes to his kingdom. Cinderella wins the man and life of her dreams and her entire society gets to go along for the ride. Participation trophies for all!

Cinderella ensemble (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Director Sheri Lee Miller’s huge cast does a great job conveying the story—one with a 7:00 p.m. evening curtain time in anticipation that hordes of kids will fill the large theater. Brittany Law is marvelous as “Ella” the household maid renamed “Cinderella” by Madame (Daniela Innocenti-Beem) for the dirty work she tirelessly performs. Shawna Eiermann and ScharyPearl Fugitt are excellent as stepsisters Gabrielle and Charlotte, respectively, bringing more nuance to their characters than expected or required. Innocenti-Beem’s Madame takes delight in tormenting poor Cinderella, but has moments of surprising gentility and humor. Musical theater veteran Innocenti-Beem is likely the best singer in the cast but her role limits her to only a few lines of music. Her physical comedy and sense of timing are impeccable.

. . . excellent . . . superb family fare . . .”

Zachary Hasbany is superb as “Prince Topher”—the character’s name another nod to contemporaneity—with a good singing voice and fine sense of movement. The prince—a big guy himself—swings a giant sword in slaying a giant dragon (offstage) but the horse he rides is comically undersized. It’s one of few glitches in the otherwise excellent production. The worst is the huge suspension of disbelief required of the audience when Cinderella goes barefaced to the masked ball where the prince falls for her. Later when scouring the realm for her, he can’t recognize her until her foot fits the shoe she didn’t lose but intentionally gave to him. These twists on the original story aren’t improvements.

Larry Williams is gleefully evil as the conniving Sebastian, the prince’s minister, a sort of fairytale Rasputin, and Sean O’Brien matches him as Lord Pinkleton, another royal court sycophant. A gifted singer, O’Brien has a couple of breakout moments in the show’s many musical numbers. A high point is “Impossible” late in the first act, in which the ragged Marie (Mary Gannon Graham) is transformed into a fairy godmother who in turn transforms mice into liveried footmen, a pumpkin into a carriage, and Cinderella into a potential princess. Graham beautifully channels Billie Burke (Glinda the Good from “The Wizard of Oz”) in this bit, a duet of “Impossible” with Law, and the transformation is one of the show’s great illusions. Many times nominated for critical awards, choreographer Michella Snider is at her best. Group and individual dances and movements are delightful and take full advantage of the theater’s big stage and clear sight lines.

Set design by Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen is gorgeous and facile, enabling quick set changes that keep the show moving briskly. Chris Schloemp’s huge colorful projections are stunning. Pamela Johnson’s and Chelsa Lindam’s costumes are gorgeous. Music director Paul Smith’s orchestra—in the pit, stage front—sounds tremendous. What’s not to like? All things considered, this “Cinderella” is excellent. Appropriate for all audiences, of course, it’s superb family fare that won’t require parents to do a lot of explaining when they get home—except for the fact that the “golden carriage” isn’t yellow. For that, you can simply say “It’s white gold.”

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

 

ProductionCinderella
Written byBook and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein
Music by Richard Rodgers
Additional material by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed bySheri Lee Miller; Music Directed by Paul Smith
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough May 26th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$18 - $36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Breathtaking “Lungs” at Main Stage West – by Nicole Singley

Pierce and Wright (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Timely subject matter, timeless relationship dynamics, and dazzling performances combine to make “Lungs” the latest triumph in a series of impressive productions to grace the intimate stage at Sebastopol’s Main Stage West this season.

A world increasingly impacted by climate change and overpopulation seeds new worries and doubts for a young couple on the fence about having children. The unnamed pair (Sharia Pierce and Jared N. Wright, both phenomenal) struggle with guilt about their contribution to the carbon footprint and fear of an uncertain future for their offspring. Where does their responsibility to the planet – and each other – end? Though their decision and the aftermath serve as the story’s crux, it’s the ebb and flow of their relationship that really hits home. Global warming is just an ominous backdrop.

. . . a tour de force – visceral, raw, and utterly real.”

Pierce and Wright (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Pierce’s performance is a tour de force – visceral, raw, and utterly real. Wright feeds off of her intensity with equal authenticity, delivering nuanced and heartfelt reactions. The mounting tension, crushing heartbreak, and abiding affection between them is powerful and palpable. It’s a deeply personal and emotionally exhausting experience, rife with elements that will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a tumultuous relationship or pondered what it means to be a parent.

David Lear directs with perfect pacing and thoughtful staging on a minimalistic set, with no props, a simple backdrop, and only some introductory audio for context, keeping the focus entirely on Pierce and Wright. Given the caliber of their acting, this works in the production’s favor.

“Lungs” is a beautiful journey full of philosophical quandaries, anxiety and indecision, human error, love, and loss. It’s hard to imagine Duncan Macmillan’s insightful script in better hands than those of this exceptionally talented cast.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

 

ProductionLungs
Written byDuncan Macmillan
Directed byDavid Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough May 26th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: Solid, Mostly Rewarding Effort in 6th Street’s “Mockingbird”– by Barry Willis

Jourdan Olivier-Verdé as Tom Robinson (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

A disabled black man accused of attempting to rape a white girl is defended by small-town Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch in the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” through May 19 at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa.

It’s the midst of a long hot summer in 1935, and Finch’s pursuit of justice puts himself and his family at risk—something he accepts despite inevitable personal and social consequences. Directed by Marty Pistone, Christopher Sergal’s 1990 stage adaptation of the classic Harper Lee novel is conveyed as a closely-related collection of reminiscences by Atticus’s adult daughter Jean Louise Finch (Ellen Rawley).

Since its debut in 1960, Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has never gone out of print, and for decades has been required reading in many high schools in the US. Based on incidents that took place in her hometown and elsewhere in the South not only in the 1930’s, but much later, it depicts circumstances unique to the time and place but also regrettably universal. The evidence against the accused man, Tom Robinson (Jourdan Olivier-Verdé) is flimsy at best, but Finch’s unassailable logic and conviction are insufficient to overcome the racist hysteria infecting the townspeople of Maycomb.

Robinson’s fate is disturbing—one that Atticus Finch (Jeff Coté) can see coming but is powerless to prevent. His dismay is shared by the town’s sheriff, Heck Tate (Tom Glynn), with whom he is amicable, even friendly. Finch is a disheveled moralist, whose rumpled suit and fatigued demeanor belie his intelligence and commitment to justice. Tate, on the other hand, is a pragmatist whose sense of justice has been leavened by the necessities of keeping a town running smoothly. His pragmatism is shared by Judge Taylor (Alan Kaplan), the cigar-chomping realist presiding over the Robinson trial. An odd bit of set design has the judge sitting behind a comically small bench, almost a cartoon parody. Surely set designer Alayna Klein could find something more imposing and appropriate.

Jeff Coté as Atticus Finch (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

A secondary plot involves Finch’s children—a boy, Jem (Mario Giani Herrera), his younger sister “Scout” (Cecilia Brenner, confident and spunky), and their friend Dill (the exuberant Liev Bruce-Low)—and their fascination with a scary reclusive neighbor named Boo Radley (Conor Woods, also this production’s technical diretor), and their desire to understand the events taking place around them. They never see Boo outside, but he communicates with the children by leaving mysterious gifts in the hollow of a tree. Late in the story, the fearsome creature lurking in a dark house emerges as an avenging angel.

. . . a gospel choir . . . opens and closes the show . . .”

The whole affair takes place on the front porch and in the yard of the Finch house, transformed with a few props into the Maycomb court house, and at the homes of nearby neighbors—all of it beautifully realized by Klein. In an unusually creative twist, the town’s black residents are also a gospel choir. Their glorious music opens and closes the show, and is used as transition between key scenes. Nicholas Augusta, who plays Reverend Sykes, mentioned after the opening performance that “Hold On” is a venerable spiritual, but that other songs were composed for the show by music director Branise McKenzie, aided by her singers. The addition of these singers to this classic production is a wonderful touch. Lighting by April George contributes greatly to the overall feel of the show.

Ensemble Choir (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Pistone’s cast is generally very good, with standout performances by Val Sinkler as Calpurnia, the Finch housekeeper; Caitlin Strom-Martin as supposed victim Mayella Ewell; and Mike Pavone as the insufferably ignorant redneck drunk Bob Ewell, Mayella’s father. Ella Jones is also excellent as Tom Robinson’s young daughter. Inexplicably, the show’s only Equity actor, Jeff Coté, seems less than fully committed to the lead role.

The language and attitudes in this production are authentic and haven’t been sanitized for the sake of political correctness. Without explicit polemics, “To Kill a Mockingbird” elucidates the eternal conflict between human rationality and ignorance. The production at 6th Street is a good reminder of how important it is to continue promoting knowledge of that conflict.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionTo Kill a Mockingbird
Written byBook by Harper Lee
Adapted by Christopher Sergal
Directed byMarty Pistone
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
G.K. Hardt Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: “Jazz” Dissects Life to Imitate Music at MTC – by Cari Pace

Clockwise, left to right: Troy, Tenille, Sullivan, Wright, Hall, Mayes, Lacy (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne)

The dictionary defines “jazz” as American music developed from ragtime and blues and characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre.

It’s an accurate parallel to Nambi Kelley’s latest play “Jazz,” just opened at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. All the jazz components are here, dissected on stage. Based on the book by Toni Morrison and directed by Awoye Timpo, this production propels story lines, characters, and time frames from 1920s Virginia cotton fields to NYC’s Harlem. It’s not a musical and there are no instruments onstage, although Marcus Shelby’s music adds to the texture of the performance.

“Jazz” opens with a young girl’s funeral, then aggressively explodes into a polyphonic ensemble of an emotional wife and a cuckolded husband, surrounded by busybodies. A colorful talking and singing parrot joins the cacophony in an over-the-top role by multi-talented Paige Mayes.

Just let it waft over and enjoy.”

With jazz music, a bluesy baseline melody can be ephemeral, quickly punctuated then disappearing. It typically returns later, played by another instrument or in a different key. The well-worn story lines in “Jazz” follow this lead.

Wright, Mayes, Sullivan (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne)

Post-funeral, a flashback begins with the blues. It’s a mother’s suicide, and a young girl (C. Kelly Wright) is sent off to work the cotton fields. Boy (Michael Gene Sullivan) meets girl, they enjoy some happy married years, then husband meets younger girl (Dezi Soley), younger girl tempts then taunts husband, husband rages out of control, wife rages at girl’s funeral. And we’re back where we started, almost.

A reappearing melody or theme is a familiar and welcoming ploy in every genre of music, yet difficult to manage on the stage. Threads of several story lines in “Jazz” repeat stage right, then left, with minor changes in pitch and timbre. These flashbacks can be confusing; it’s best not to fret. Just let it waft over and enjoy.

The actors put a lot of energy into their roles, although without mikes many quick spoken lines are lost. Local favorite Margo Hall plays multiple roles with skillful versatility while Lisa Lacy, Dane Troy and Tiffany Tenille complete the talented cast. They dance ragtime, sing snippets of spiritual songs, and make the most of the “devil music” in “Jazz.”

ASR reviewer Cari Lynn Pace is a member of SFBATCC and writes theatre and lifestyle reviews for the Marinscope Community Newspapers throughout Marin County.

 

ProductionJazz
Written byAdapted by Nambi E. Kelley
Based on the book by Toni Morrison
Music by Marcus Shelby
Directed byDirected by Awoye Timpo
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$10 – $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Astounding, Shocking Realism in “The Jungle” at the Curran – by Barry Willis

Jonathan Nyati and Ben Turner (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

A crisis in a refugee camp comes roaring to life each night in “The Jungle,” at The Curran through May 19. San Francisco is the third stop for this astounding international touring production, which originated in London and then moved to New York.

Conceived and written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, and directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, “The Jungle” has won universal acclaim. The co-playwrights lived in the sprawling multi-ethnic refugee camp in Calais, France during its peak, 2015-2016, when its approximately 8000 residents lived peaceably if contentiously with each other while enduring continual harassment from French authorities. The production is a full-immersion experience that puts most of the audience in the midst of a large shantytown café — called “Salar’s Restaurant” or the “Afghan Café”— that served as a community center for the camp. The high-intensity story encompasses the final few months of the camp’s  existence, before it was destroyed by French police in October 2016.

Arya Rose Lohmor and Ammar Haj Ahmad (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

The elegant interior of the recently renovated Curran has been converted to a plywood-and-rough-framing temporary structure where the audience sits on hard wooden benches, sipping fragrant tea while arguments rage among the camp’s residents about what to do in the face of increasing pressure from French authorities. Several British aid workers try their best to help, to intervene, and in some cases, to transport refugees across the channel to Kent — a horrendously frustrating and occasionally comic effort for everyone involved. Two dozen impassioned actors wander among the audience, murmuring and shouting at each other in English, French, Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Kurdish, and several African languages as the crisis builds, reinforced by real news clips on television sets placed here and there around the café (video design by Duncan McLean and Tristan Shepherd).

…the most intense and profound theatrical event any of us will ever encounter.”

A huge extended table serves as a thrust stage where most of the drama and a few moments of levity and hope take place — including several confrontations with haughty French officials and condescending police — interspersed with tales of unbelievable hardships endured by refugees from throughout the Middle East and Africa in their quest for a better life away from the violence of their homelands. Among these are stories of leaving behind all they owned, knew, and loved, walking thousands of miles, enduring kidnappings, torture, and extortion, and embarking on perilous attempts to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded inflatable rubber boats or being packed by the hundreds into leaky ships with little chance of reaching their destinations. Such a tale is told in an unwavering voice by a clear-eyed Sudanese boy named Okot (John Pfumojena).

Ammar Haj Ahmad and John Pfumojena (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

What these refugees endure in their quest for peace and freedom is horrific, as is their cold reception by Europeans. French duplicity gets deserved exposure as politicians pay lip service to human rights while planning to eliminate the camp. Despite its self-image as a nation of asylum, France does not have a glowing history in support of human rights — Haiti’s crushing poverty, for example, is the result of terms imposed by France when the island nation sought independence.

The show’s denouement is among the most shattering you are likely ever to experience in any theater. Its hyper-realism will shock you to the core and at the very least make you reconsider our own refugee crisis. “The Jungle” may be the most intense and profound theatrical event any of us will ever encounter.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

 

ProductionThe Jungle
Written byJoe Murphy and Joe Robertson
Directed byStephen Daldry and Justin Martin
Producing CompanySonia Friedman Productions with Tom Kirdahy present the Good Chance Theatre, National Theatre and Young Vic production
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production AddressThe Curran
445 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone(415) 358-1220
Tickets$25 – $165
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!