An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “Annie” a Winner at 6th Street Playhouse by Barry Willis

An unexpected benefactor saves a spunky orphan girl from a life of drudgery in the classic musical “Annie,” at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa, through December 22.

Based on the Depression-era comic strip “Little Orphan Annie,” this Michael Fontaine-helmed production features two separate casts of adolescent girls (at least, they appear to be adolescents) and an adult cast of North Bay theater veterans—Larry Williams as Daddy Warbucks, Daniela Innocenti-Beem as orphanage matron Miss Hannnigan, Jeff Coté as schemer Rooster Hannigan, Lydia Revelos as Rooster’s companion Lily St. Regis, Steve Thorpe as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Trevor Hoffman as radio announcer Burt Healy, Morgan Harrington as Grace, assistant to Daddy Warbucks, and Dwayne Stincelli as Drake, head of the Warbucks household.

“Annie” will always be a relevant show…

On a versatile set by Jeff Thomson—with quick changes, it serves variously as orphanage, city streets, the Warbucks mansion, the White House, and a radio station studio—the show features many great and widely beloved songs, including “Hard Knock Life,” “Tomorrow,” “Easy Street,” and “I Don’t Need Anything but You.” Who have hearts so cold that they can’t be moved by a dozen scruffy orphan girls scrubbing the floor and singing away? Or a red-haired kid—Alina Kingwill Peterson on opening night—giving her big voice to a great anthem of hope? Let’s not forget Sandy, her fluffy pooch, who can’t seem to find her marks but prompts gushes from the audience.

Larry Williams brings believable gravitas to the role of Daddy Warbucks, including decent song-and-dance skills. Morgan Harrington is appealing as Warbucks’s assistant, with a soaring soprano voice that dominates every ensemble piece she’s in. Jeff Coté and Lydia Revelos are amusing as a pair of bottom-rung hustlers, and do some marvelous ensemble work with Dani Innocenti-Beem, especially in the crowd-pleasing “Easy Street.” Innocenti-Beem is clearly the audience favorite as the tippling harridan who can’t stand the kids she supervises. Her offhand comedic bits add spice to a deliciously convincing portrayal of the mean bitch you love to hate.

Dale Camden—a talented actor seen not enough recently on North Bay stages—has a hilarious breakout moment of song and dance as a member of Roosevelt’s cabinet. And Trevor Hoffman is delightful as butter-voiced radio personality Burt Healy.

There are many obvious parallels between our own time and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Although unemployment today is at an all-time low, we are still plagued with homelessness—homeless encampments were called “Hoovervilles” in the ‘30s, in honor of the president who ushered in the Depression—and disparity between rich and poor is as severe as ever.

“Annie” will always be a relevant show, and with its upbeat message, always a popular salve for our social malaise.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact him at barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

ProductionAnnie
Written byThomas Meehan

Music by Charles Strouse & Lyrics by Martin Charnin
Directed byMichael Fontaine
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough Dec. 22nd. Thur-Sun.
Production AddressSixth Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$22 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK? --------

*** AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! *** “The House of Yes” Sheer Genius at Main Stage West – by Barry Willis

Received wisdom has it that a plagiarist copies from one; a genius imitates many. By that standard, playwright Wendy Macleod’s genius rating must be off the chart. In her incisive and savagely funny “The House of Yes,” at Main Stage West in Sebatopol through December 16, are echoes of Chekov, Ibsen, Beckett, and Albee, yet the play is wholly original. A depiction of perhaps the ultimate dysfunctional family, it’s one of the most amazing carnival rides ever undertaken though the dark side of familial relations.

In upper-crust McLean, Virginia (a suburb of Washington, DC) all appears normal in the Prescott home, near the Kennedy residence. Presided over by a bejeweled and perpetually plastered matriarch (Laura Jorgensen), the indolent Prescotts have little to do other than drink and snipe at each other. We meet younger son Anthony (Elijah Pinkham), an Ivy League dropout with a lackadaisical Jimmy Stewart demeanor, and his older sister “Jackie-O” (Sharia Pierce), so called because of her obsession with the former First Lady, in particular the former First Lady on the day of her husband’s assassination.

Everything about this production is perfection…

Jackie-O’s personal problems—irrational outbursts, mania, depression, and a pharmacy’s worth of prescription drugs—are the primary focus for Anthony and his mother. Hyperactive with no internal filter, Jackie-O can and will say almost anything, much of it stupendously funny.

It’s a long-running family soap opera, but a minor symptom of a much deeper malaise, as we learn when her twin brother Marty (Sam Coughlin) comes home with his fiancée Lesly (Ilana Nierberger), a sweet and seemingly well-balanced girl from Pennsylvania. She soon realizes that she’s in over her head—way over her head—as Jackie-O reveals that she and Marty have enjoyed a special relationship since they were “in the womb,” one that has continued unabated right into adulthood and that nothing will ever break. Lesly also caves into an inept seduction by Anthony, an act she immediately regrets.

As all this unfolds, we learn that the unseen and presumably departed Mr. Prescott contributed only his fortune to the family, and that his wife was so busy bed-hopping that she isn’t sure who fathered her children.

That’s merely a plot outline. What happens in developing it is so wildly unpredictable and outrageously funny that revealing more would do a disservice to potential ticket buyers.

Everything about this production is perfection: Elizabeth Craven’s stunning set design—stark black-and-white hyper-modern art—and Missy Weaver’s moody lighting,  are a perfect complement to Macleod’s deeply disturbing comedy—one accurately described by MSW’s John Craven as “funny until it isn’t funny anymore.” Performances range from subdued to over-the-top, but always appropriate and perfectly timed.

“The House of Yes” is easily one of the best productions in the North Bay this year, the sort of rabbit hole that theatergoers venture into all too rarely. It’s exhilarating, shocking, hilarious, and deadly—a ten-star show on a five-star scale. Simply brilliant.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact him at barry.m.willis@gmail.com

ProductionThe House of Yes
Written byWendy Macleod
Directed byElizabeth Craven
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Dec. 16; Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8:00 p.m., Sunday 5:00 p.m.
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone707.823.0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! Cirque du Soleil’s Amazing “Volta” at AT&T Park – by Barry Willis

Calling a Cirque du Soleil production “a spectacle” is a bit like calling the Grand Canyon “a big ravine.” Reviewers’ standard superlatives—“tremendous,” “incredible,” “fantastic,” etc—fall far short of describing the scope of talents and risks taken in a typical Cirque show.

“Volta” is the 19th Cirque production to visit San Francisco. At AT&T Park through February 3, the show follows company protocol in avoiding the use and exploitation of animals, but once it gets underway no one in the audience will care that there’s nary a lion or tiger in sight. The dramatic setup is a loosely-organized talent competition—the “Mr. Wow Show”—that somewhat spoofs TV programs such as “America’s Got Talent.”

The talent-show thread gets inexplicably lost somewhere before intermission. No problem: the assorted acts that make up “Volta” are so amazing that there’s no need for dramatic structure. World-class acrobats, tumblers, trampolinists, BMX cyclists, ballet dancers, and more rollout onto the large stage in succession so rapid that at times several acts overlap one another.

“Volta” is a show with appeal for everyone who appreciates the extremes that humans can achieve…

It’s been noted that Cirque du Soleil is where former college gymnasts go to extend their careers. Their abilities and confidence pay homage to long years of training. It’s easy to understand how someone becomes an expert on the unicycle or the trampoline, but there is one act in “Volta” that provokes bafflement: Where does one learn to be a hair suspension aerialist? In “Mirage,” Brazil’s Danila Bim does a riveting aerial dance far above the stage floor, suspended only by her hair, pulled up into a tight braid connected to a cable in the apex of the big top. Her act isn’t the most dynamic—the trampolinists, tumblers, and stunt cyclists have the edge there—but it’s certainly the most beautiful and the most exotic. A perfect blend of intention, strength, and serenity, “Mirage” is ideally positioned as the high point of Act 2.

Traditional circus arts aren’t ignored in “Volta”—there is plenty of clowning, although never a small car unpacking two dozen unseen passengers. The audience also gets to see a scary performance on the “Swiss rings”—a swinging version of the still rings in men’s gymnastics. Also called the “flying rings,” the apparatus was once part of Olympic competition and now has very few adherents outside the circus. Keep an eye on the catwalk from which the rings are suspended. It sways quite a bit when the performers swing out over the edge of the stage.

There are many close calls in “Volta,” particularly in the closing segment with what seems like a dozen bike riders performing tricks simultaneously. The danger is part of the thrill for the audience—and presumably, part of the appeal for the performers—but given its seemingly high potential for disaster, Cirque du Soleil has a low injury rate. “Volta” is a show with appeal for everyone who appreciates the extremes that humans can achieve even if for no higher purpose than sheer exhilaration and the satisfaction of knowing that they can do things that few others can equal.

“Volta” runs through February 3 in San Francisco, then moves to San Jose through March 24. It’s an astounding production. With two shows per day on many dates, there is certainly one that will fit in your busy winter holiday schedule. Don’t miss it.

ASR Theatre Section Editor and Senior Contributor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact him at barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 

ProductionVolta
Written byCirque du Soleil
Directed byCirque du Soleil
Producing CompanyCirque du Soleil
Production DatesThru Feb. 3rd, 2019
Production AddressAT&T Park
24 Willie Mays Plaza, San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://www.cirquedusoleil.com/volta
Telephone
Tickets$54.00 and up
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
ScriptN/A
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?

**** AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK **** “The Addams Family – A New Musical” Dazzles at Spreckels Performing Arts Center – by Barry Willis

Charles Addams’s “altogether spooky” Addams Family has been deeply ingrained in American culture since the debut of the 1960s television sitcom—so deeply ingrained and so successful that it spawned an imitator TV series (“The Munsters”), at least two movies, and at least one musical. A tremendous version of this last venture runs through October 28 at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park.

In the musical, the family—Gomez, Morticia, Uncle Fester, Grandma, Pugsley, and their butler Lurch—are all as we recall them, but daughter Wednesday (Emma LeFever) has become a cranky self-directed teenager. Worse, she has fallen for a straight, normal boy, much to the dismay and disapproval of her family. This classic setup-with-a-twist is rife with conflict, exploited to the max in every scene, song, and dance.

“Addams Family, a New Musical” is a dazzling bit of theater.

Director Carl Jordan gets wonderful performances from the large cast, especially from Peter T. Downey as irrepressible patriarch Gomez, and from Serena Elize Flores as his slinky seductive wife Mortica. The frenetic Erik Weiss is his over-the-top best as Uncle Fester, also serving as the show’s narrator.

Serena Flores and Peter Downey as Mortica and Gomez – Photo by Jeff Thomas

Mario Herrera is a total surprise as Pugsley, Wednesday’s withdrawn younger brother. Herrera stuns when he steps out of the shadows for his big solo song. Cooper Bennet gives a very natural and sympathetic interpretation of the character of Lucas Beineke, Wednesday’s boyfriend. Larry Williams and Morgan Harrington are equally good as his parents Mal and Alice, with a couple of breakout moments of musical comedy.

Emma LeFever at work as Wednesday – Photo by Jeff Thomas

Elizabeth Bazzano’s and Eddy Hansen’s gorgeously ornate set occupies the entirety of the big stage, matched in its aspirations by Pamela J. Johnson’s costumes and Michella Snider’s choreography. In the cast are also a dozen or so “ancestors” (as they are called in the program)—a chorus of extras who embody spirits and other unworldly creatures associated with the Addams. They’re all very effective and mostly delightful to watch.

Lucas Sherman’s superb eleven-piece orchestra drives the show, most of it conveyed by beautifully delivered song.

The core conflict — Will Gomez and Mortica accept Wednesday’s love for a boy from the wrong side of the graveyard? — carries the first act aloft. It’s like watching a magnificent hot-air balloon rise to a great height—imagine the penultimate scene in “The Wizard of Oz”—while the second act is like watching that same balloon settle slowly back to earth, a rise-and-fall written into the script. Even if the ultimate settling doesn’t make you leave the theater with a song in your heart, in total “Addams Family, a New Musical” is a dazzling bit of theater.

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

 

ProductionThe Addams Family – A New Musical
Written byWritten by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice

Music and Lyrics by Andrew Lippa
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThru Oct. 28th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center

5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone707-588-3400
Tickets$18-$36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

 

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

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

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

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

… The piece opens strongly …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! — Delightful “Hello, Dolly” at Sonoma Arts Live – by Barry Willis

Michael Stewart’s and Jerry Herman’s classic American musical “Hello, Dolly” is enjoying a delightful revival at Sonoma Arts Live in the town of Sonoma, through October 21.

Starring Dani Innocenti-Beem as Dolly Gallagher Levi, the widowed yenta suprema of New York City and environs, the show is a feel-good piece of Americana. In some ways “Dolly” is the companion piece to Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man”—the two are set in the same era and share the sort of gentle humor that pokes fun at characters and circumstances without subjecting them to vicious ridicule.

Dani Innocenti-Beem at work as Dolly.

Dolly is the story’s fairy godmother character—she propels all the action with constant well-intended intervention in the affairs of others, but doesn’t have much of a character arc of her own. The lead role gives Innocenti-Beem many of the show’s best songs—including the heart-rending “Before the Parade Passes By”—and most of its funny lines, at least a few of them ad-libs on the part of the irrepressibly funny actress-singer.

Overall, this “Dolly” is beautifully done, with enormous energy from the cast and spectacular costumes…

The charming Tim Setzer shines in the role of Horace Vandergelder, a wealthy merchant in need of a wife. Dolly’s persuasive powers convince him that his quest will be fulfilled in New York, and when he goes into the city from Yonkers his two inept clerks Cornelius and Barnaby (Michael Scott Wells and Lorenzo Alviso, respectively) follow him. In the city, the penniless fools pretend to be rich in the hope of meeting girls.

Much comic confusion ensues but thanks to Dolly they get their wish—a hat shop owner named Irene Molloy (Danielle DeBow) and her assistant Minnie (ScharyPearl Fugitt). So does Vandergelder, who ultimately lands not the widowed heiress he had anticipated, but the matchmaker herself.

The cast of “Hello Dolly” at work.

With a huge nineteen-member cast, the show is both romantic comedy with multiple couplings and a comedic free-for-all with plenty of big production numbers that may not do much to propel the plot but offer plenty of entertainment value. Late in the show, real-life husband-and-wife Wells and DeBow perform a sweet duet made more meaningful by their obvious love for each other. It’s a moment that will prompt tears from even the most cynical viewers.

Overall, this “Dolly” is beautifully done, with enormous energy from the cast and spectacular costumes by Janis Snyder. Opening night was marred by technical glitches with the sound. We’ve been assured by multiple sources that these problems have been solved, and that the results are exemplary. Why this wasn’t done during technical rehearsals is a mystery, but it’s good to know that for the remainder of its run this show will be delivered at the high level it deserves.

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

 

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

 

**** AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK **** “Oslo” a Tour-de-force at Marin Theatre Company – by Barry Willis

Marin Theatre Company has extended through October 28 its stunning production of “Oslo,” directed by MTC artistic director Jasson Minadakis.

A west coast premiere of J.T. Rogers’s Tony Award winner, MTC’s production is an all-star effort revealing the backstory of 1993’s Oslo Accords that offered hope of lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. In a heartbreaking coda, “Oslo” also brings that portentous development into the present, with a recitation of what became of those involved in the discussions, and of many tragic events that followed, scuttling the promise of the agreement.

It’s a consistently riveting drama despite its nearly three-hour length. Imagine a PBS historical mini-series compressed into one evening. The core story centers on Norwegian husband-and-wife team Terje Rod-Larsen and Mona Juul (Mark Anderson Phillips and Erica Sullivan, both excellent), who work behind the scenes to get Israelis and Palestinians to begin talking. Rod-Larsen is an advocate of “gradualism,” getting representatives of the two sides to recognize their common humanity through personal small talk that later leads to serious negotiation.

Everything about this show is top-rung: script, performance, pacing, set, sound, lighting..

In the historically accurate retelling, Mona Juul is actually a member of the Norwegian foreign service, but Rod-Larsen has no official standing, and what they do has only the most reluctant approval from her top boss, Johan Jorgen Holst (Charles Shaw Robinson), all of it kept secret, especially from meddling Americans. The larger story is the tentative and contentious discussions, first between Palestine Liberation Organization officials Ahmed Qurie (J. Paul Nicholas) and Hassan Asfour (Ashkon Devaran) and two Israeli economics professors, who have no official status.

PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie (J. Paul Nicholas, left) speaks with Israeli Director-General of the Foreign Ministry Uri Savir (Paris Hunter Paul) while Norwegian mediators Terje Rød-Larsen (Mark Anderson Phillips) and Mona Juul (Erica Sullivan) look on.
Photo: Kevin Berne, Marin Theatre Company

This segues into negotiations with real Israeli heavyweights, lawyer Joel Singer (Peter James Myers) and Uri Savir (Paris Hunter Paul), negotiations that range from friendly and familial to near-fistfights. Throughout it all, Rod-Larsen works to keep them all on track, exercising an incredible amount of self-control and diplomatic skill, an astounding job of acting by Phillips.

Erica Sullivan steps out of character at many points in the story to address the audience directly, describing what has happened between scenes or at locations unseen by the audience. She has rock-solid temperament throughout, both in and out of character.

Norwegian mediators Mona Juul (Erica Sullivan, left) and husband Terje Rød-Larsen (Mark Anderson Phillips) speak with Israel and the PLO.
Photo: Kevin Berne, Marin Theatre Company

Veteran actress Marcia Pizzo appears in several roles, including as a member of the Norwegian diplomatic corps and as the sweetly beguiling Toril Grandpal, whose waffles seduce everyone at the negotiating table.

Sean Fanning’s deceptively simple set is perfect as the several locations in which the story plays out—a hotel in Oslo, offices in Tel Aviv and Tunis—with an unexpected reveal as a light snow storm through which Qurie and Savir stroll in a moment approaching friendship. Everything about this show is top-rung: script, performance, pacing, set, sound, lighting. Best of all is that it gives the audience plenty of substance to mull over in the days following a performance. “Oslo” is a show that should be on every serious theatergoer’s must-see list for the month of October.

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

 

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

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! ASR Theatre Review: Marvelous “Hedwig” by Ray of Light – by Barry WIllis

John Cameron Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” may be the greatest rock musical ever conceived. No matter how you rank them, it’s certainly among the top five. Ray of Light has launched a really engaging production of this fantastic comedic redemption story about an East German rocker whose botched gender-reassignment surgery prompts personal and professional crises.

At the Victoria Theatre in the Mission district through October 6, the production features Coleton Schmitto in the lead role, with Maya Michal Sherer as Yitzhak, Hedwig’s aide-de-camp, fellow performer, and sometimes lover. Hedwig’s band, the Angry Inch—its name derived from what was left by Hedwig’s incompetent surgeon—includes Steven Bolinger on keyboard and guitar, Lysol Tony-Romeo on bass, Diogo Zavadzki on guitar, and David Walker on drums. The group is very well balanced and just loose enough to give this show a semi-inebriated improvisational feel.

…this “Hedwig” is refreshingly street-funky…

Peet Cocke’s rough set perfectly complements the shabby old Victoria, giving it the air of both dive bar and low-budget arena. Schmitto dominates the stage throughout the non-stop ninety-minute show, spouting a litany of ironic one-liners and managing all of his character’s dance moves and gymnastics without being visibly hindered by stiletto heeled boots. Sherer scrambles to sing and draw projected transparencies at the same time. It’s quite a juggling act.

“Hedwig” with Coleton Schmitto.

The pair sing with power and conviction, although the sound on opening night was so unbalanced that during opening scenes, the bass and drums overwhelmed the vocals. This technical glitch was corrected later in the show and presumably won’t be an issue for the duration of its run. Stephen Trask’s music, of course, runs the gamut from incendiary punk (“Angry Inch”) to pop humor (“Sugar Daddy”) to deeply personal (“Wig in a Box”) to hauntingly sentimental (“The Origin of Love,” “Wicked Little Town”)—all of it beautifully performed.

Not an ultra-polished Broadway production, this “Hedwig” is refreshingly street-funky, refined enough for musical theater elitists but grungy enough that cultists will come back for repeat performances. Hardcore fans will regret missing it.

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

 

ProductionHedwig and The Angry Inch
Written byMusic: Stephen Trask.
Lyrics: Stephen Trask.
Book: John Cameron Mitchell
Directed bySailor Galaviz
Producing CompanyRay of Light Theater Co.
Production DatesThru Oct. 6th.
Production AddressVictoria Theatre
2961 16th St.
San Francisco, CA
Websitewww.rayof lighttheatre.com
TelephoneN/A
Tickets$35-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! ASR Theater Review: Promising but Uneven “Demos Kratos Theatro” – by Barry WIllis

Political humor takes both expected and unexpected turns in Utopia Theatre Project’s “Demos Kratos Theatro,” at San Francisco’s PianoFight bar and theater, through October 6.

Its title Greek for “People Power Theater,” this collection of short plays and comedic sketches includes plenty of predictable anti-Trump/anti-Republican polemics. Musician Lauren Mayer appears repeatedly with songs whose lyrics are sometimes clever and sometimes entirely too obvious, such as “voter fraud is a fraud.”

There’s one piece, “Daughters of Ocean,” by Carol S. Lashof, that’s either too obscure or not quite fully developed, but two others are excellent, especially “The Polling Place,” Kenneth Heaton’s two-actor sketch about a voter trying her earnest best to participate in democracy in the face of increasingly impossible requirements. Directed by Mary Ann Rogers, veteran professional actor Richard Farrell is superb as a no-nonsense worker enforcing the rules at a polling station. Alicia Stamps is his match as a would-be voter baffled by the obstacle course she must overcome simply to cast a ballot.

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

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

The Demos Kratos Theatro cast.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

ProductionThe House of Yes
Written byWendy Macleod
Directed byElizabeth Craven
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Dec. 16; Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8:00 p.m., Sunday 5:00 p.m.
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone707.823.0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

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

The cast at work in “All My Sons”

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

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

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

Joe Keller as played by Christian Phillips

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

ProductionAll My Sons
Written byArthur Miller
Directed byPatrick Russell
Producing CompanyRole Players Ensemble
Production DatesThru Sept. 16th
Production AddressRole Players Ensemble
233 Front Street
Danville, CA 94526
Websitewww.roleplayersensemble.com
Telephone925.820.1278
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!---

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “Sunday in the Park with George” is a Winner at SF Playhouse – by Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danielle DeBow at work as Patsy Cline.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Soft Power’ is a wildly entertaining celebration…

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

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

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

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

Barry Willis

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barry Willis

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

 

 

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

 

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

“Stairway to Paradise” at Transcendence Theater Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Barry Willis

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

 

 

Transcendence Theatre Company presents

“Stairway to Paradise”

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

Jack London State Historic Park  Glen Ellen, CA

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

www.BestNightEver.org

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

 

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

“A Walk on the Moon” at ACT

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

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

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

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

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

Pearl and Walker – Katie Brayben and Zak Resnick at ACT

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

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

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

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

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer: Barry Willis

Barry Willis is ASR’s Theater Section Editor and a Sr. Contributor at Aisle Seat Review. He is also a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

 

 

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

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

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

Tickets: $15 – $110

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

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

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

Straight White Men at Marin Theater Company

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

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

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

Cast of “Straight White Men” at MTC

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

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

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

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

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

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer: Barry Willis

Barry Willis is ASR’s Theater Section Editor and a Sr. Contributor at Aisle Seat Review. He is also a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

 

 

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

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

Marin Theatre Company  397 Miller Avenue Mill Valley, CA  94941

Tickets: $22 – $60

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

Rating: Two out of Five Stars

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

“Hands on a Hardbody” at Lucky Penny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Hands on a Hardbody”

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

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

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

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@

 

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

“Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain” at NTC

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

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

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

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

Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

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

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

Tickets: $15 – $27

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

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

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@   

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

 

Nate Currier as Hamlet photo by Scott London

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

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

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

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

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

Ophelia feels the pain – photo by Jay Yamada

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

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

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

 

“Hamlet” by Marin Shakespeare Company

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

Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University, San Rafael, CA

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

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@

 

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

SF Playhouse: An Entomologist’s Love Story

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

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

SF Playhouse: Lucas Verbrugghe and Lori Prince

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

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

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

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

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

 

“An Entomologist’s Love Story”

San Francisco Playhouse

Through June 23, 2018

420 Post Street, San Francisco

(Second floor of the Kensington Hotel)

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

Rating: 4 1/2 Out of Five Stars

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@

 

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

 

MTC: Marjorie Prime

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Marjorie Prime”

Marin Theatre Company  397 Miller Ave.  Mill Valley CA 94941

Through May 27, 2018

Tickets: $10 – $44

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

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@

 

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

 

La Cage aux Folles at 6th Street

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

“La Cage aux Folles”

Directed by Russell Kaltschmidt

6th Street Playhouse

G.K. Hardt Theatre

52 W. 6th Street Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Tickets: $22 – $38

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

Rating:  Four out of Five Stars.

 

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@

 

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

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

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

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

James Udom

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

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

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

Greg Wallace

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

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

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

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

 

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

Directed by Liz Diamond

American Conservatory Theater

Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street San Francisco

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

Rating: Three out of Five Stars

 

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@

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

 

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

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

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

Head Over Heels: A New Musical

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

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

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

Head Over Heels: Peppermint

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

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

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

 

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

130 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission

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

When: Through May 6, 2018.

Tickets: $29-$175

Info: 415-358-1220, SFCURRAN.com

Rating: Five Out of Five Stars

 

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@        

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

 

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“The Wolves” by Sarah Delappe

Through April 15, 2018

Marin Theatre Company

397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley, CA 94941

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

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

 

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Ladies of Broadway” by Transcendence Theatre Company

March 24-25

Luther Burbank Center for the Arts

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

Rating:  Five out of Five Stars

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

“By the Water” Directed by Carl Jordan

Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Studio Theatre

5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park, CA

Tickets: $28

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

Rating: Five Stars — Out of Five Stars

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Blackbird” by David Harrower

Through April 7th

Main Stage West  104 North Main Street  Sebastopol, CA 95472

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

Contact@mainstagewest.com

Rating: Three-and-a-half Stars

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical”

Through March 11, 2018

Lucky Penny Productions

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

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

 

Rating: Three-and-a-half-stars

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Studio Theater, 6th Street Playhouse

52 W 6th St, Santa Rosa, CA 95401

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

 

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child”

Through February 25, 2018

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

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

 

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced”

Through February 18, 2018

Left Edge Theatre, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road Santa Rosa CA 95403

www.leftedgetheatre.com

707-546-3600

Rating: Five out of five stars. 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

Rating: Three out of Five Stars

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

 

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