ASR Theater ~~ “The Government Inspector” – Comedy Imitates Life in this Russian Town

By Cari Lynn Pace

Those who are appalled at the travesties between Russia and Ukraine which dominate our headlines may enjoy a respite with this Ross Valley Players comedy, at the Barn at the Ross Art and Garden Center through June 5.

This farce lampooning government officials was written by Nikolai Gogol, a Russian playwright who exiled himself after this play was presented to the Tzar in 1836. Gogol was subjected to intense official disdain after he parodied government unscrupulousness.

Act II is truly a laugh out loud absurdity….

Although the location is not specific, the play takes place in a Russian town filled with corrupt officials and workers who continually (and successfully) defraud the system. Their deceits are profitable and mutually accepted among themselves, resulting in uninhabitable hospitals, sub-standard schools, courtroom graft, fake employment, and the like. One is reminded of the phrase repeatedly heard from a Russian friend: “We pretend to work, and the government pretends to pay us.”

Steve Price as The Mayor; Benjamin Vasquez as Dobchinsky;
Raysheina de Leon-Ruhs as Bobchinsky. Photo Robin Jackson.

The trouble begins when the Mayor belatedly discovers that a “Government Inspector” has arrived unannounced from St. Petersburg and is residing undercover. Those in charge fear that the inspector will report their misdeeds to the Tsar, with distressing consequences. The Mayor and his minions go into hyperdrive concocting schemes to cover up the extent of the town’s corruption. Steve Price is hilarious playing the blustering and panicked Mayor, a role he pushes over the top with present pandemonium. He’s in charge of the mayhem, and it is truly madness.

Hlestekov, an indolent and lowly clerk from St. Peterburg happens to be passing through the town and has lost his funds gambling. He’s holed up in the inn awaiting funds from his family when the town mistakes him for the dreaded inspector. Suddenly, a stream of rubles get thrust into his hands, labelled “welcome gifts.” Michel B. Harris plays this role perfectly, from an initially confused clerk to the role of a now-corrupt official commanding further bribes from the guilty.

It’s not only rubles that get this clerk’s attention. He takes the opportunity of this sudden power to seduce the Mayor’s daughter Marya (Hunter Candrian-Velez), all the while deflecting passionate advances from the Mayor’s lustful wife Anna (hilarious Pamela Ciochetti.)

Wood Lockhart. Photo Robin Jackson.

Harris revels in his new identity, upstaged only by the snide comments of his servant, enacted by veteran Wood Lockhart in an elf’s garb. Act II is truly a laugh out loud absurdity.

The large cast of fourteen, directed by Lisa Morse, jumps into their madcap roles with full tilt energy. Some frantic bits bring to mind the antics of the Three Stooges, other moments are clearly inspired by Groucho Marx. One might expect the cast to emulate Russian accents, although most do not. “The Government Inspector” misadventure could easily be transported to any corrupt city these days, which makes Gogol’s plot from the early 1800’s a timeless possibility.

“The Government Inspector” is an ambitious production and an audience pleaser with the RVP crowd. Costume and wig changes are supported by an offstage production team more numerable than the cast. “The Government Inspector” is a wild ride and a frivolous breath of fresh air in these sober times.

Note: Ross Valley Players requires proof of vaccination in keeping with public health protocols. Actors, stage crew and volunteers are fully vaccinated. To attend performances, attendees must show proof of being fully vaccinated and masks always must be worn. There are no food and drink concessions open as of this writing. Parking is free at the lot at 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross.


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


ProductionThe Government Inspector
Written byNikolai Gogol
Directed byLisa Morse
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThursdays through Sundays until June 5, 2022
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Telephone415-456-9555 ext. 1
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

ASR Theater Review | “The Packrat Gene” Stashes Memories Amidst Stuff; RVP Offers New Production | Your Reporter Cari Lynn Pace

It’s a common dilemma as years go by. Who can get rid of the pile-up of possessions, especially those linked to precious memories? “The Packrat Gene” explores this timeless agony with a true-to-heart script by the Bay Area’s Margy Kahn at the Ross Valley Players.

This new play was selected by the Ross Alternative Works Committee (RAW) for its original, provocative, and exciting aspects, an addition to RVP’s regular subscriber season. The familiar theme resonates with audiences young and old.

Marcia van Broek as Esther; Julie Ann Sarabia as Rachel. Phots by Robina Jackson.

In New Jersey, three generations of grandmother, daughter, and granddaughter gather with a goal to clear out grandma’s apartment. Their conversations are acerbic and amusing as the women cajole, collide, concede, and console one another.

Marsha van Broek is marvelous as widowed grandma Esther with the accent of a holocaust escapee from Paris. She’s just fine where she is, thank you, surrounded by her books, broken bowls, 30-year-old pay stubs and Edith Piaf records.

Maya Rath as Leigh. Photos by Robina Jackson

Maya Rath masters her role as the practical and frustrated daughter Leigh, flying cross country to take control of the situation. Concerned about her mother’s age and mental state, Leigh tries to convince her to consider a retirement community. She’s on a deadline to return back to work in LA. Her obstinate mother dismisses Leigh with harshness dredged up from the past, while the dutiful daughter patiently reminds her to live in the present.

Spunky granddaughter Rachel, superbly played by Julie Ann Sarabia, flies in to give affection and allegiance to her grandmother and a snippy attitude to her mother. It seems Leigh can’t do anything right by these two. Three divergent generations, three authentic portrayals, and three riveting backstories anchor this solidly satisfying production.

“Three divergent generations, three authentic portrayals, and three riveting backstories anchor this solidly satisfying production.”

Director Michael R. Cohen notes “This play succeeds because of the casting. I am fortunate to have three superb actors who worked well together and made my job easy.”

“The Packrat Gene” is an addition to RVP’s season of regular subscriber shows. It’s a new and fully staged production selected by the Ross Alternative Works Committee, running only through April 3rd. Pack this performance into your plans and make a move to see it.



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


ProductionThe Packrat Gene
Written byMargy Kahn
Directed byMichael R. Cohen
Producing CompanyRoss Alternative Works Committee via RVP
Production DatesThursdays at 7:30 PM, Fridays & Saturdays at 8:00 PM, Sundays at 2 PM through April 3rd
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Telephone415-456-9555 ext. 1
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An ASR Pick. | “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily”: Ross Valley Players Blends Fantasy with Reality | Your Reporter: Cari Lynn Pace


A Sherlock Holmes fan, I was a bit hesitant when Ross Valley Players presented “Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily.” Would it hold up to the reputation so solidly laid by the clever detective’s reputation? Would there be mental challenges to determine how Holmes knew a visitor’s occupation, history, or personal habits just by scientific observation?

No worries here. Playwright Katie Forgette has written enough clever observations for Holmes to satisfy classic fans. Veteran Director Phoebe Moyer has expertly cast a full complement of victims, villains, and simpletons to play several famous touchstone characters. The lead character could not be better cast than David L. Yen, a Bay Area favorite and an incredible personification of the famed detective. His voice and his cultivated manner channel savvy Sherlock, pipe and all.

“Playwright Katie Forgette has written enough clever observations for Holmes to satisfy classic fans.”

“Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily” opens with a quick side glimpse of a robbery. The real plot starts in Holmes’ study, handsomely designed by Tom O’Brien, where Holmes and the affable Dr. Watson, solidly enacted by Alex Ross, receive an odd visitor.

Sherlock Holmes is in residence at RVP! — Photo by Robin Jackson

At first the proposed crime adventure appears straightforward: Holmes’ client, now revealed, seeks to avoid blackmail by recovering a cache of stolen love letters. The client is famous actress Lillie Langtree (beautifully played by Ellen Brooks) who’s had an affair with her royal lover, Britain’s Crown Prince “Bertie” Edward. Lillie’s own moniker “The Jersey Lily” stems from her birth on Jersey Island in the UK.

“As details of the crime are discussed, there are twists and turns uncovered. The plot thickens, and the game’s afoot!”

Lillie’s friend and devotee, Oscar Wilde, tags along, languidly played by Isaak Heath. He adds comic relief to the repartee between Holmes, Lillie, and Dr. Watson. As details of the crime are discussed, there are twists and turns uncovered. The plot thickens, and “the game’s afoot!”

The stage setting changes to Lillie’s sitting room, a charming transformation done by two stage hands dressed as proper maids, an example of Michael A. Berg’s cleverness as costume designer.

Holmes and Langtry at RVP — Photo by Robin Jackson

Act II takes place in a warehouse where the nefarious Professor Moriarty (Michel B. Harris) outlines his plans to mastermind another theft from Lillie. It’s this act that gives Tamar Cohn a chance to shine as Lillie’s supposed maidservant. Cohn’s acting chops are superb. Professor Moriarty’s hired thug (Joseph Alvarado) also turns in a terrific performance as a fumbling dumbbell. Alvarado doubles up his roles in a cameo as the regal emissary to the Queen, a convincing switch of characters.

“Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily” runs 2 hours and 20 minutes. The second act could be tightened up, as several of the scenes were prolonged. The playwright delivers an ending, actually several endings, which seem less than believable, but then it’s a fictional work after all.

The show delivers pure escape entertainment, mingling fictional with actual people of history. It’s an enjoyable night out, especially filled with surprises and a real sword fight.

Covid Protocols: In keeping with public health protocols, Ross Valley Players note that all actors, stage crew, and volunteers are fully vaccinated. Audience attendees are required to show ID and proof of full vaccinations at the door. Masks must be worn at all times inside the theatre.


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


ProductionSherlock Holmes and the Case of the Jersey Lily
Written byKatie Forgette
Directed byPhoebe Moyer
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru February 20th
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Telephone415. 383-1100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!


ASR Not-So-Random Question Time: Can’t Stop Those Dancing Feet — Marilyn Izdebski

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

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

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

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


Marilyn Izdebski

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

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

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

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

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

ASR: And you realized your dream?

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: When was your present company formed?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: Do you have a “day job?

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

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

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

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

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

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

MI: Earrings!

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

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


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



ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Irrepressible Singer/Actor Phillip Percy Williams

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

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

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

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


Phillip Percy Williams

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

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


ASR: Your background?

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

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

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

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

PPW: Approximately fifteen.

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

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

ASR: What are some of your favorite musicals?

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

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

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

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance?

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

ASR: How do you relax after?

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

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

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And scene . . .

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

PPW: Cuff links. I have a substantial collection.

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

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


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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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



An Aisle Seat Theater PICK! “She Loves Me” is a Charming Musical Romance at RVP — by Cari Lynn Pace

Photos by Robin Jackson.

Ross Valley Players has collaborated with the Mountain Play Association to present a light-hearted nostalgic musical filled with fine performances.

“She Loves Me” debuted in 1964. It’s based on the 1937 play “Parfumerie” by Miklos Laszlo, which inspired classic films as 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail in 1998. An homage to Cyrano de Bergerac that takes place in a 1930’s Budapest perfume shop—Maraczek’s Parfumerie—the musical won multiple Tony awards for its 1993 and 2016 Broadway revivals.

The Ross Valley Players and the Mountain Play Association are two of the oldest theatre companies in Marin. Why is the Mountain Play collaborating with RVP for this special performance, not a part of the regular RVP season? “We want to become more of a year-round musical company and lend our support to others. We’ve been behind the scenes of the Ross Valley Players since one of their plays in 1935 (“The World We Live In”) was subsequently presented as our Mountain Play for that year,” explained Eileen Grady, Executive Director and Artistic Producer of the Mountain Play.

This charming and cheerful musical … is a great lead-in to the Christmas season.

“She Loves Me” enjoys an unusually lengthy run: five performances per week almost to Christmas Day. A familiar name to Mountain Play devotees is veteran choreographer/actor Nicole Helfer, who has shifted her admirable skills to direct this production. Multi-talented Jake Gale, who just completed a run as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Marin Musical Theatre Company’s “Rocky Horror Show,” serves as vocal director and also supervises the show’s music.

Photos by Robin Jackson.

A large cast of thirteen does a fine job acting, singing, and dancing in period costumes designed by Michael A. Berg. Petite Marah Sotelo is a standout as the store clerk Amalia, both in spot-on acting, gestures and a pleasing soprano voice. Max Kligman is well-matched as Georg, her “Dear Friend” mystery suitor, despite their amusing height difference.

Photos by Robin Jackson.

Another surprising talent (and this show contains many) is Anthony Maglio, who does a fine lothario shop clerk, then later becomes an aggressive waiter plagued by a clumsy busboy (Alex Munoz). Act I’s highlight has to be the hilarious café scene “A Romantic Atmosphere.” Store clerks are played and sung convincingly by Patrick Barr and young Alex Cook. Lovely Chelsey Ristaino balances out the staff and gets to steal a few scenes as she finds amusing library romance in Act II.

Photos by Robin Jackson.

Ron Dritz and Michael Walraven (also the show’s set designer) provide supporting characters. They’re joined by the song-and-dance moves of Dana Cherry, Katie Rose, MacKenzie Cahill, and a tantalizing tango by Sophie de Morelos and that clumsy busboy Alex Munoz.

This charming and cheerful musical is a bit long (2 ½ hours) with a first act of 90 minutes, but it’s a great lead-in to the Christmas season.

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


ProductionShe Loves Me
Written byAgatha Christie
Directed byNicole Helfer
Producing CompanyMountain Play Association and Ross Valley Players
Production DatesThru December 22nd
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Telephone415. 383-1100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! A Sharp-Edged Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, NTC Collaborates w/Theatre-at-Large by Cari Lynn Pace

Alison Peltz as Mrs. Lovett, Bruce Vieira as Sweeney Todd and Fernando Siu as Tobias Ragg
Photo Credit: Kristen Schutz

This fiendishly fine performance would make Stephen Sondheim smile with sadistic glee. It’s dark and diabolical, with singing, acting, costumes, and a two-level set as sharp as the shaving razor wielded by Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Directors Kim Bromley and Bruce Vieira (masterfully commanding the title role) are skilled veterans at their craft.  They handle the darkly humorous story of a vengeful barber with restraint, using a large cadre of actors and an even larger oven. Ragged actors move in from all sections of the theatre to sweep the audience into the malevolent background story.

It’s hard times in desperate 19th century London, and many morals have been suspended. A migrant sailor (handsome Cordell Wesselink) rescues a mysterious castaway who calls himself Sweeney Todd.  Bruce Vieira seems chillingly suited for this title role, giving it an imposing figure and dour countenance.

Todd is a talented barber who captures the admiration of the street scene by challenging the local barber and mountebank (mustachioed Dominic Quin-Harken) to a shave-off.  His young assistant Tobias (irrepressible Fernando Siu) is flexible when his master becomes not only the loser, but oddly lost to sight as well.

Don’t miss NTC’s Sweeney Todd… It’s deliciously devilish…

Todd sets up shop, and gains the attention of Mrs. Lovett (charming Alison Peltz), the widowed pie-maker, despite his character’s taciturn demeanor. Peltz is the award-winning actor who connives her way into making meat stuffing for her pies from the victims of Todd’s short-tempered vengeance. This unholy alliance brings delicious accolades and business prosperity while Todd bides his time for revenge on the Judge (snidely done by Charles Evans) and the Beedle (a fine role voiced by Mauricio Suarez).

The Judge and Beedle had sent Todd to a prison colony to pave the way for the seduction of Todd’s wife. Unfortunately, she took poison rather than succumb to their lecherous plans.

Todd has escaped and returns to find that his grown daughter (lovely soprano Julianne Bretan) is the ward of the very Judge who lusted after Todd’s wife. The libidinous Judge is now focused on pursuing the daughter. It’s all one can do to resist hissing at these bad boys.

As a child, some may recall the gruesome song “Dunderbeck’s Machine.” We laughed at the invention of his sausage meat machine, and the outcome, when we boisterously sang the lyrics. Let it be noted that Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has added social elements that make it inappropriate for children.

Cordell Wesselink as Anthony and Julianne Bretan as Johanna
Photo Credit: Mark Clark

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street won multiple Tony awards, including best musical. There are a couple of recognizable songs including “(Nothing’s Going to Harm You) Not While I’m Around” and “Pretty Women.” The production possesses sufficient twists and turns in the plot to keep the audience entertained. Sondheim’s songs and lyrics are a real challenge, yet all are impressively handled by the cast who had countless rehearsals to do such an outstanding job.

NTC’s recipe for success is Hugh Wheeler’s book, mixed with Marilyn Izdebski’s choreography, and folding in the meaty music directed by Judy Weisen to bake up this tasty treat.  Don’t miss NTC’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s deliciously devilish.

Playing now through November 17th at the Novato Playhouse, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato CA. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2 PM.  Shows suspended by the North Bay Kincaid fires will transfer to Thursdays, Nov. 7 & 14 at 7:30pm.

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


ProductionSweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Written byStephen Sondheim
Directed byKim Bromley & Bruce Vieira
Producing CompanyNovato Theater Company
Production DatesThrough Nov. 17th
Production AddressNovato Theater Company
5420 Nave Drive, Novato 94949
Telephone(855) 682-8491
Tickets$24 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

AN ASR THEATER REVIEW: “Sovereignty” a History Lesson Well Served at MTC – by Barry Willis

The signing of the Treaty of New Echota (L-R: Elizabeth Frances, Adam Magill, Kholan Studi, Scott Coopwood, Andrew Roa, Robert I. Mesa). Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

The displacement of conquered people is pretty much the history of the human race. So is the disregard of treaties by conquerors. Most historical retellings vary only in the degree of dishonesty and savagery depicted of conquerors toward the conquered—a degree that depends largely on which side the tale comes from. History is told by the victors, as the old adage has it.

At Marin Theatre Company through October 20, Mary Kathryn Nagle’s “Sovereignty” examines in detail the legal and illegal wranglings of 1832 that resulted in the forced migration of the Cherokee people from Georgia to Oklahoma (the infamous “trail of tears”). White settlers supported by President Andrew Jackson were making incursions into the Cherokee Nation, in violation of a treaty that gave the Cherokee jurisdiction over their land and all that took place on it. In Worchester v. Georgia the US Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall upheld native sovereignty, a decision defied by Jackson and his loyal US Congress. (Any resemblances between Jackson’s erratic antics and those of the current occupant of the White House are purely intentional.)

Sarah Bird Northrup (Ella Dershowitz) and John Ridge (Robert I. Mesa) make plans for their future. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

As told by Nagle, Cherokee legal scholars John Ridge (Robert J. Mesa) and Major Ridge (Andrew Roa) worked within the court system to assert the rights of their people, but were considered traitors by more militant Cherokee leaders, such as John Ross (Jake Waid), who favored armed conflict as the only way to insure their survival—or in Ridge’s view, their total destruction. Mutual distrust  between their descendants continues into the present, when a brilliant lawyer named Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances) seeks a position with the office of Cherokee Attorney General Jim Ross. As a member of a rival clan, Polson conceals her family identity until well after she’s landed the job.

Acting and pacing are both first-rate…

The issue of clan identity and inherited guilt is a running theme throughout the play. It’s a common story—people in many cultures are often deemed responsible for the actions of their ancestors—but Nagle doesn’t delve into its illogic. And she acknowledges with barely a nod that the Cherokee were slave owners. Instead she focuses on the outrageously illegal actions of Jackson and his ilk, and on more recent events, such as the 1978 Supreme Court decision Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe, which largely voided the benefits of Worchester v. Georgia, including eliminating the rights of native people to prosecute criminal acts by non-natives. In her notes in the playbill, Nagle mentions that attacks against natives by non-natives have risen horrendously since then—especially attacks against native women. Oliphant, in her view, was vindication of Jackson 140 years later.

Polson, her lead character, is a seeker of justice, in particular, one seeking enforcement of the Obama administration’s Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) that will restore some protection to native women—an argument she makes forcefully to the US Supreme Court in the play’s closing scene. Elizabeth Frances is at the height of her theatrical powers here. It’s a tremendous bit of theater with a resounding message, strongly directed by MTC Artistic Director Jasson Minadakis.

Flora Ridge (Ella Dershowitz) and Sarah Ridge Polson (Elizabeth Frances) reconnect in the family graveyard. Photo credit: Kevin Berne.

Acting and pacing are both first-rate in this piece, written by a native American and featuring several native actors. The past and present intersect almost seamlessly and sometimes confusingly, the two periods often distinguished only by the position of a long table on stage or by the costumes worn by actors.

The blending of the past and present is a dramatic structure to reinforce the concept of how much the present resembles the past. This sort of blending is also applied to the character of Ben O’Connor (Craig Marker, who also plays Andrew Jackson) a white detective who, early in the first act, leaps to the defense of Polson’s brother Watie (Kholan Studi) when he’s accosted by a drunken redneck (Scott Coopwood, superb in several roles). Ben is incensed by the redneck’s blatant racism, and exhibits admirable bravery in dealing with him. Shortly thereafter he charmingly asks Sarah Polson to marry him, and she agrees, but as soon as he’s downed a couple of drinks he becomes an insufferably small-minded racist jackass himself.

It’s a convenient plot device but doesn’t ring true, and provokes related questions such as why a whip-smart lawyer like Sarah Polson can’t perceive that her fiancée isn’t trustworthy. Such limitations in the script prevent “Sovereignty” from earning unlimited praise. Nonetheless, it’s a very good effort by a talented cast, presented as compellingly as possible—a history lesson well served.

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



ProductionMother of the Maid
Written byJane Anderson
Directed byJasson Minadakis
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough Dec 15th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$10– $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW! Novato Theater Company Exposes Tragedies and Turmoil in “The Humans” — by Cari Lynn Pace

Photo by Fred Deneau

“The Humans” is a slice-of-life peek into a dysfunctional family’s Thanksgiving dinner. It starts with discord and never lets up. Fine performances by six Novato Theater Company actors rivet sharp-edged characters as they parry and thrust at one another.

Stephen Karam wrote his drama of three generations hiding secrets and resentments in a basement apartment (a great set by Michael Walraven). Add alcohol, irritating neighbors and faulty light bulbs to put this dinner on edge. Anyone want them as relatives?

Director Patrick Nims pulled fine performances from the actors to create cohesion from their criticisms. Brigid (Olivia Brown) is the youngest in this confrontational family. She starts out angry and stays that way, even when her helpful boyfriend (Ron Chapman) tries to be supportive. He doesn’t escape a grilling, of course.

“It was a challenge to memorize the gibberish in the script.”…

Brigid’s older sister Aimee (Alicia Kraft) has serious health and relationship turmoil, which she wisely keeps close to her vest. For sport, the sisters gang up to mock their mother (Laura J. Davies), reducing her to tears. Their father (David Francis Perry) gets shredded by both wife and daughters. It’s not pretty to watch, unless you’re fond of schadenfreude.

Marilyn Hughes, playing the frail and wheelchair-bound Momo, is particularly convincing. Her character doesn’t do or say much to provoke anyone, so her family mostly ignores her. Hughes notes offstage “It was a challenge to memorize the gibberish in the script.”

“The Humans” runs for 90 minutes, with no intermission, and contains adult themes and language.

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


ProductionThe Humans
Written byStephen Karam
Directed byPatrick Nims
Producing CompanyNovato Theater Company
Production DatesThrough Sept. 29th
Production AddressNovato Theater Company
5420 Nave Drive, Novato 94949
Tickets$21 – $27
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! MSC’s “Spamalot” a Masterful Madcap Musical – by Cari Lynn Pace

In its 30 years, Marin Shakespeare Company has never presented a full-scale musical. Until now.

The second production in Marin Shakespeare Company’s summer trio of shows, “Spamalot” is the musical comedy written by Eric Idle and “lovingly ripped off” from the zany motion picture “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Take Idle’s wit, add John DuPrez’s music, mix in seven musicians, and toss in juicy bits from the madcap screenplay. Sprinkle in new sight gags and you have a riotous musical comedy.

Replete with several outstanding comic performances, “Spamalot” loosely spoofs “Camelot,” the King Arthur legend of Medieval England. Jarion Monroe stars as the would-be “King of the Britons,” who traipses about the countryside with his loyal talking horse Patsy (Bryan Munar), trying to convince hapless peasants to join him in a quest to find the Holy Grail and thereby somehow unite the country.

… a huge production that’s one fast roller-coaster ride of laughter.

The familiarity of several characters fades quickly as the plot takes their character arcs in unpredictable directions. Nonsensical scenes and characters are amusingly disjointed, including one particularly assertive Black Knight (spoiler alert!). The show is full of clever sight gags, hysterical physical comedy, and tons of goofy banter—the Lady of the Lake (Susan Zelinsky), who gives Arthur his mandate and his magic sword Excalibur—is described by one doubtful peasant as “a watery tart.” One hesitates to laugh too long for fear of missing what comes next.

Phillip Percy Williams as Sir Robin with Chorus at Marin Shakes

Michael Berg’s colorful costumes are over the top—reportedly totaling 700 pieces if you count each sock and shoe. Choreography by Rick Wallace is the kinetic equivalent, especially some of the large-scale production numbers. You can’t beat a bevy of chorus girls swinging maces for sheer entertainment. The excellent band led by Mountain Play veteran Paul Smith propels the whole affair from just in front of center stage.

Joseph Patrick O’Malley, a languid and fluid actor who first steals his scene with “I’m Not Dead Yet,” pops up in multiple ridiculous guises. The gorgeous Zelinsky sings with power and prominence in Act I, then disappears only to show up in Act II wearing a Norma Desmond-like caftan and turban, wailing “Whatever Happened to My Part?” while “The Song that Goes Like This” will be all too familiar to audience members who’ve seen their share of modern musicals. The finale tune “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” has the audience whistling along while the chorus line kicks up its boots. Truly a marvelous madcap romp.

Award-winning Marin Shakespeare Company is run by two tireless founders, Robert Currier and Lesley Schisgall Currier, who present an annual trio of outdoor productions at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, on the Dominican College campus in San Rafael. One of the three is classic Shakespeare, one is “Shakespeare light” with alternative settings and language, and the third is a production far removed from the Bard’s influence, such as “Spamalot.” All are professionally and energetically presented by a mix of Equity actors and solid local talent, with interns in minor roles.

Director Robert Currier has a long history of updating Shakespearean comedies with unexpected adornments to plot, character, and setting. With “Spamalot,” he started with an outrageous script, and through superb choices in casting and direction has come up with a huge production that’s one fast roller-coaster ride of laughter. Don’t sit too close to the stage if you want to catch every line.

MSC has established a fine legacy among theatre-lovers from both sides of the curtain. Open seating (wooden benches with backs) can be made more comfortable by renting cushions at the gate. Nights can get cold when the fog rolls in, so dress in layers. Picnics are welcome.

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


ProductionMonty Python’s Spamalot
Written byBook & Lyrics by Eric Idle.
Music by John Du Prez & Eric Idle
Directed byDirected by Robert Currier
Producing CompanyMarin Shakespeare Company
Production DatesThrough August 25th
Production AddressForest Meadows Amphitheater (outdoors),
Dominican University of California 890 Belle Avenue, San Rafael, CA
Telephone(415) 499-4488
Tickets$10 – $38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

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

Cast of TSSS at RVP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.




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

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:




“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,

Rating: Two 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,

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“The Wolves” by Sarah Delappe

Through April 15, 2018

Marin Theatre Company

397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley, CA 94941

Tickets: $10 – $49 Info: 415-388-5208,

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The Ladies of Broadway” by Transcendence Theatre Company

March 24-25

Luther Burbank Center for the Arts

Tickets: $39 – $139 Info: 877-424-1414,

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

Rating: Five Stars — Out of Five Stars


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” by Marin Onstage

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

Tickets: $12-$27

Info: 415-290-1433

Rating: Three-and-a-half-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

Rating: Five out of Five Stars


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