An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “You Mean to Do Me Harm” at San Francisco Playhouse – by Barry Willis

A seemingly innocuous statement made at a celebratory dinner party has unexpected ramifications in Christopher Chen’s “You Mean to Do Me Harm,” at San Francisco Playhouse through Nov. 3.

So does just about everything spoken or thought by the four characters in this baffling one-act workshopped last year as part of the Playhouse’s “Sandbox” series. Now given a full production in the company’s main theater, the piece opens strongly with two interracial couples meeting to celebrate an impending new job for Ben (Cassidy Brown), whose Chinese-American wife Samantha (Charisse Loriaux) was promoted over him at social-good non-profit. His new boss will be a Chinese-American named Daniel (Jomar Tagatac), whose spouse, Lindsay (Katie Rubin) is a corporate lawyer who briefly dated Ben in college.

A comment about a camping trip they took some ten years earlier opens a Pandora’s Box of florid and sometimes paranoid fantasies that impinge on every aspect of professional and interpersonal relationships. Racism—private/personal and historical/institutional—is a strong theme.

… The piece opens strongly …

Played out on an austere but imposing set by Angrette McClosky, the urbane banter of the four exposes character flaws and motivations that threaten the stability of their relationships. The job offer for Ben is inexplicably withdrawn. This launches a series of sketches that examine in detail both the outer and inner realities of all four characters.

Harm-Charisse Loriaux and Cassidy Brown as Samantha and Ben – Photo by Ken Levin

These sketches tend to be vicious—especially a shouting match between Ben and Lindsay—but there is one of the two women with a confessional/conspiratorial tone approaching friendship.

The sketch structure is both too little and too much for this 90-minute show: two little in that there are insufficient dramatic/character arcs and too much in the sense that each sketch could be expanded. It’s as if Chen has opened up his notebook and thrown everything onstage that these four characters could do with each other, without considering the ultimate trajectory of the play. The setup is compelling but dramatic development lacking: plenty of conflict, no resolution.

“You Mean to Do Me Harm” begins and ends abruptly and looks very much like an early-stage Netflix series in which each sketch could be developed into a full episode. Director Bill English and his expert cast try mightily to breathe life into it, but as an evening’s entertainment, it’s an interesting but ultimately unfulfilling bit of theater.

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

ProductionYou Mean to Do Me Harm
Written byChristopher Chen
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru Nov. 3rd
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post St., San Francisco, CA.
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$30-$100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

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

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

 

Tartuffe at B8

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

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

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

Sacre bleu!

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

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

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

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 60/100. See this show.

 

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

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

RUN DATES
April 5 – 21, 2018

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

“Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller

Through April 28, 2018

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

Tickets: $18 – $28

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

“The Effect” by Lucy Prebble

Through April 28

San Francisco Playhouse

450 Post Street, San Francisco

Tickets: $25 – $100

Info: www.sfplayhouse.org

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is not:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cops and Robbers:

Directed by Ami Zins and Lew Levinson.

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

Mature content: appropriate for ages 15+.

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

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

Run time: 90 minutes with one intermission.

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Go see it!

 

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

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

Run time: 45 minutes with no intermission.

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

***

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

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

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there is Monique Hafen as Amy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

***

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

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

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colin Johnson’s sound effects were generally good.

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

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

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

Run time: 2:10 with one intermission.

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

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

ALSO AVAILABLE…

Script available here. 

Audio Theater Edition available here.

Masterpiece Theater version available here.

Book available here.

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

***

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

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

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Industry Commentary…

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

Also Available…

Script available here. 

Script, Samuel French  available here.

Study Guide available here.

Paybill from Broadway run available here.

Discount Tickets are also available on Goldstar

Tickets are available on the theater’s website.

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

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

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

***

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

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

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

 

ASR Theater Review! Aurora Theater Hits High Gear with ‘Detroit’ — by Kris Neely

A 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Detroit is as humorous as it is sharp. With tight writing by Lisa D’Amour (Airline Highway), the critically acclaimed play skillfully tangles the lives of a seemingly responsible older couple and a younger, more careless pair. Josh Costello ably directs Aurora Theater’s production in Berkeley, which leaves some in the audience diffident at best.

A friendly BBQ serves as a façade to the wreckage ahead in this well-structured expose’ on American life that shows just how distrusting people should be of others during oppressive economic times. At the outset, Ben (Jeff Garrett) and Mary (Amy Resnick) are a sharply drawn lower-middle class couple who fire up the grill for an All-American BBQ to welcome Sharon (Luisa Frasconi) and Kenny (Patrick Jones), a couple of drifters who move into the house next door — sans furniture.

As the neighborhood foursome bonds over backyard barbecues, remembered dreams and helping hands, their neighborly connection gets personal and accelerates into unanticipated directions, which threatens to ignite more than just their friendship.

Jeff Garrett is a Dick Van Dyke clone—with loose limbs, a rubbery face, and impeccable comedic timing. Even when the play’s focus is elsewhere, his impressive and adept listening and reactionary skills command attention. While most actors simply wait for their turn to speak, Mr. Garrett has truly mastered the art of active listening. Luisa Frasconi is, well, simply an amazing talent in bloom. It takes no stretch of the imagination to say that, one day, in the not-too-distant-future, we will all be paying large sums to see this funny, gifted lady work. Patrick Jones and Amy Resnick are solid performers.

Mr. Costello’s direction takes full advantage of the intimate space that is Aurora Theater’s main stage. His stage pictures are well-chosen, and his blocking, which can be tricky in a thrust environment like Aurora’s, almost always works smoothly.

The lighting design by Kurt Landisman is precise and skillful, at times even approaching ingenious. While most of the production is set outside the house, his clever lighting effects, used to light the interior during the tumultuous conclusion, are simple but very powerful. Using light to emphasize the denouement of Detroit is a bold choice that pays off in huge dividends.

Mikiko Uesugi’s set design masterfully takes advantage of the postage stamp stage. The attractive, solid and spare set could be a lesson in space economization for other designers. Uesui’s set construction — a wholly underappreciated aspect of live theater– was professional and well done. Theater carpenters, set construction staff, and set designers: this production is a shining example of design and handiwork.

The modern-day costumes by Christine Crook are perfect for the urban setting and complement the actors and the script.

The work backstage is deftly navigated. Set changes are flawless. Special marks go to the small backstage crew who not only maneuver what must be a chaotic backstage, but also who help the actors effect costume changes in the blink-of-an-eye, and under enormous performance pressure.

Daniel Banato resists the urge, too common in contemporary theater, to present the audience with a prop-laden set. Mr. Banato’s choices are largely complementary. His top-shelf props for the iterative grilling action are creative.

As pivotal to the plot as food and drink are, the clear sight of plastic props in lieu of legitimate consumables is an eye sore. While some productions get away with fabricated food and beverage, this piece demands the consumption of real, genuine food and ditto for the beverages which figure so prominently in the story.

Cliff Caruthers deserves special note for his very personal sound design. From subtle sound effects to music he specially produced for Detroit, Caruthers gives audiences something they rarely get today in a dramatic comedy, a well thought-out, carefully-considered and crisply rendered sound design—four stars for Mr. Caruthers.

Wesley Apfel’s stage management was tight, effective, and well executed. With as many moving parts as this production has, it’s clear Apfel’s presence and skill are in demand backstage.

Detroit’s greatest strengths lie in its technical aspects. From direction and stage management to lighting and sound, and from costumes and props to set design and construction, Aurora Theater’s production is a winner. It’s a real master class in technical artistry of contemporary theater.

Detroit ends its extended run on Sunday July 26, 2015. Tickets are available by phone on (510) 843-4822, online at http://www.auroratheater.org, or in person at the Aurora Theater Box Office, 2081 Addison St., in Berkeley.

***

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

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

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

 

 

ASR Theater Review! RVP Has a Hit with ‘Pirates of Penzance’ — by Kris Neely

The Pirates of Penzance, that stalwart classic penned by messieurs Gilbert and Sullivan, as rendered in Ross Valley Players’ last show of the season, is pretty much the model of what a modern community theater musical should be.

For those unfamiliar with the comic opera staple, here is the plot in a nutshell:  set on the rocky coast of Cornwall, England, the play, which sends up Victorian-era values, begins with a group of not-too-nice pirates who are celebrating the birthday of one of their own, Frederic, who has reached his twenty-first year. Finally having served the full length of his required time with the pirates, he decides to strike off on his own and become an upstanding citizen – which may even mean bringing the pirates to justice. This turns out to be a tricky prospect indeed, especially when Frederic’s freedom is called into question! It seems Frederic was born on February 29th, a birth date that only appears every four years — and even pirates can do that math. Insert singing matrons, dancing pirates, eyelash-batting lasses, clueless cops and a snappy major-general (more on him later), and in the end all winds up peachy-keen with the world, with all the he’s and she’s ending up with the right he’s and she’s.

Singing propels the story: fourteen songs in Act One and a matching number in Act Two. All that and an intermission in two hours. The result is, as always with Gilbert & Sullivan, a rousing good tale of duty done right.

Few stage directors know how to put actors into stage pictures as well as James Dunn. Mr. Dunn positions actors with such precision, sureness and balance that one could pluck a B&W Polaroid snapshot (if such a thing still existed) out of a stack of 500 directors’ scenes and know immediately it belonged to Mr. Dunn.

Mr. Dunn’s stagings to date have been Master’s theses in scene tableau. He earns full marks here as his hand and eye retain their touch in Pirates. Given the obvious spatial restrictions, lighting limitations and distinctive visual quirks of The Barn, that’s saying a lot.

Speaking of a master’s touch, the same meticulousness and seasoned expertise were apparent in Michael Berg’s costumes. It’s fair to say that Mr. Berg’s costumes were, with all respect to Mr. Dunn’s stage pictures, a hefty percentage of what made the production colorful and powerful. By the time the intermission rolled around, seven peacocks had gotten out of the business.

While we’re on the subject of hues, Ron Krempetz’s imaginatively simple set, adroitly executed by Michael Walraven, enjoyed the benefits of lighting designer Dhyanis’ (yep – one name) equally developed sense and appreciation for tint. Avoiding the cartoonish effects and crayon coloring that sadly so often accompany regional renditions of musicals of this stripe, Dhyanis showed restraint, and a keen eye, which permitted the set to support the show in style. Delightful work.

Then there was Norman A. Hall.

Holding the audience’s heart in the palm of his hand, Mr. Hall delivered a performance that alone was worth the price of admission. Aspiring actor Major-Generals, take note of Mr. Hall as The Very Model.

Pirates premiered in the Big Apple in 1879. In 1980, Joe Papp and the trusty New York City Public Theater revived the show and gave it a modern tonal makeover, driving a broader musical comedy style with the play as well, and as a result the show’s popularity has swelled for new generations. At Ross Valley Players, opening night 2015 served this tradition.

Some minor areas need smoothing-out, but there’s more than enough technical artistry and acting/singing/dancing pizazz to charm its audience.

Show dates are:

  • Thursdays 7:30 pm on July 23, 30 & Aug. 6 & 13
  • Fridays 8:00 pm on July 24, 31 & Aug. 7 & 14
  • Saturdays 8:00 pm on July 25 and Aug. 1, 8 & 15
  • Sundays 2:00 pm on July 26 and Aug. 2, 9 & 16

For tickets and other information, consult the Ross Valley Players website atwww.rossvalleyplayers.com or call their Box Office on (415) 456-9555.

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

***

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

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

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

 

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