ASR’s Year in Review: Our “Best of the Best” from 2019 – by Nicole Singley and Barry Willis

Better late than never, the old adage has it. Here (in no particular order) are some memorable productions from last season, a year full of four- and five-star achievements.

The Jungle (Curran Theatre): San Francisco’s renovated Curran Theatre was re-renovated for an immersive recreation of a 2016 crisis in a refugee camp in Calais, France. A huge and hugely talented multi-ethnic cast made this show last season’s most profound and moving theatrical experience. (BW)

After Miss Julie (Main Stage West): Ilana Niernberger and Sam Coughlin paired up for a thrilling pas de deux in Patrick Marber’s evocative spin on “Miss Julie,” transplanting Strindberg’s classic story to a summer night in 1945. A stunning set, great lighting, and white-hot performances brought class and erotic tensions to a boil, culminating in a seriously steamy tango scene that won’t be soon forgotten. (NS)

Rocky Horror Show (Marin Musical Theatre Company): MMTC took this Halloween favorite far over the top at the San Anselmo Playhouse, thanks to stunning efforts by Jake Gale, Nelson Brown, Dani Innocenti-Beem, Pearl Fugit and many others. (BW)

Barbecue Apocalypse (Spreckels): The laughs were served well-done in this quirky comedy, thanks to a witty script marinated in millennial-centric humor and a talented ensemble. Clever costumes, strong technical work, and excellent casting proved that all it takes to survive the end of days is a little raccoon meat and some serious comic relief. (NS)

Romeo and Juliet (Throckmorton): Mill Valley’s Throckmorton Theatre and the streets around it became Verona, Italy, in a sweetly evocative, imaginative, and fully immersive production of Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy. (BW)

Sex with Strangers (Left Edge Theatre): Left Edge Theatre turned up the heat in “Sex with Strangers,” a seductive modern romance that broaches big questions about love, ambition, and the price of success in the digital era. Dean Linnard and Sandra Ish brought the story’s unlikely couple to life with electric chemistry and powerful, nuanced performances. (NS)

Incidents in the Wicked Life of Moll Flanders (Ross Valley Players): RVP gambled and won with Jennifer LeBlanc’s adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s 1722 novel. Amber Collins Crane stole the show as the lead in a compelling tale about a beautiful, quick-witted woman who rose from miserable circumstances to respectability through petty crime, stealth, charm, and unusually good luck. (BW)

Drumming with Anubis (Left Edge Theatre): Left Edge Theatre invited us along to the Neo-Heathen Male Bonding and Drumming Society’s annual campout, where a group of aging death metal fans communes in the desert to beat their bongos. Things got a little dark, a lot hilarious, and surprisingly touching when the Egyptian god of death crashed the party. Local playwright David Templeton’s brilliant new show earned a 5-star reception, featuring a phenomenal cast and beautiful scenic design. (NS)

How I Learned What I Learned (Marin Theatre Company): Director Margo Hall coaxed a tremendous performance from Steven Anthony Jones, who brought grandfatherly wit and wisdom to the role of playwright August Wilson. A master class in story-telling. (BW)

Faceless (6th Street Playhouse): Former artistic director Craig A. Miller returned to helm this riveting courtroom drama about an American teenager caught running away to join her internet boyfriend in ISIS. Razor-sharp dialogue and powerhouse performances made for an intense and memorable experience in 6th Street’s intimate studio theater. (NS)

The Year of Magical Thinking (Aurora Theatre Company): Stacy Ross glowed in a masterly solo recital of Joan Didion’s play from her book of the same name. (BW)

Home (Berkeley Repertory Theatre): In this stunning piece of performance art by Geoff Sobelle, audiences watched a two-story house materialize from the shadows of an empty stage as if by magic. A spectacle of epic proportions, this visual feast reminded theatergoers that a house is just a space in which we come together to make a home. (NS)

Fully Committed (6th Street Playhouse): Patrick Varner channeled 40-some characters in his hilarious one-man depiction of a scheduling manager at his wits’ end in a high-end NYC restaurant, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse. (BW)

Merman’s Apprentice (Sonoma Arts Live): Daniela Innocenti-Beem brought Broadway legend Ethel Merman back to the stage with a larger-than-life performance in this sparkling world premiere, brimming with catchy tunes and colorful humor. Innocenti-Beem and teenaged costar Emma Sutherland boast some serious pipes, which made this charming new musical all the more fun. (NS)

Mother of the Maid (Marin Theatre Company): A mother’s love and devotion were never so well depicted as in this lovely, heart-rending piece about Joan of Arc’s mother Isabelle (Sherman Fracher). (BW)

Eureka Day (Spreckels): Laughter proved contagious in Jonathan Spector’s whip-smart “Eureka Day,” pitting parents at a Berkeley charter school against each other in the wake of a mumps outbreak. An all-star cast, elaborate set design, and top-notch technical work combined to make this a 5-star production. (NS)

Cabaret (San Francisco Playhouse and Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions): Both of these productions were excellent and amazing versions of this dazzling but starkly disturbing cautionary tale. (BW) 

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Spreckels): Theatergoers were dazzled by this cleverly written and superbly acted continuation of Jane Austen’s beloved Pride and Prejudice, containing everything an Austenesque story should: delicious drama, a heartwarming romance, and an abundance of humor and witPitch-perfect direction and exemplary casting made “Miss Bennet” the ultimate holiday treat. (NS)

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Curran Theatre): Nonstop high-intensity theatrical magic is the only way to describe this extravagant production, running into next July. (BW)

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder (Spreckels): Hilarity ensued in this madcap musical about a man clawing his way to the top of the family tree. Tim Setzer stole the show as all nine members of the D’Ysquith family, all of whom meet their ends in some of the most creative and comical ways imaginable. Excellent ensemble work, cute choreography, and clever projections made this one killer production. (NS)

Barry Willis is the Executive Editor at Aisle Seat Review, a member of the American Theatre Critics Association, and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

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

 

An ASR Theatre Review: “The Seafarer” a Rough Voyage at Main Stage West by Barry Willis

The stereotypical Irish affinity for alcohol, self-delusion, and self-defeat gets fully exercised in Conor McPherson’s “The Seafarer,” at Main Stage West through December 21.

It’s Christmas eve, 2007, in a shabby residence (set design by director David Lear) in a small coastal town north of Dublin. Four buddies have gathered for a night of blarney, heavy drinking, and card games, with a fifth guest named Mr. Lockhart (Keith Baker) who may or may not be the devil incarnate. The four friends—Nicky, Richard, Ivan, and Sharky (Anthony Abate, John Craven, Kevin Bordi, and Edward McCloud, respectively)—spend the entire first act getting hammered and regaling each other with long-winded and elaborate tales about very little. It’s a long setup.

…a stunning ensemble effort by five extremely talented actors.

In the second act, they get down to business with a poker game in which they bluff not only about the cards they hold but about their generally miserable existences—bluffing exacerbated by their sharing a treasured bottle of high-octane liquor, as the financial and psychological stakes rise.

The stakes reach a fever pitch during a lull in the game—with the other three out of the room, Mr. Lockhart torments Sharky with a hideously frightening description of eternal damnation. Then they reunite around the table for a few final rounds of cards, in which their true characters are revealed to be as empty as their pockets. None of them are likable—Nicky, for example, admits that he has only thirty-five euros to last until January, and that he ought to be at home with his wife and kids, but he can’t resist gambling more than he has on one last desperate hand. Ivan likewise wrestles with how he’s going to explain his absence from home. Richard, Sharky’s brother and literally a blind drunk, takes great delight in tormenting his friends, as he has throughout the evening.

Altogether, it’s an unpleasant story about unlikeable losers, not one that would normally earn a recommendation, but it’s a stunning ensemble effort by five extremely talented actors. All are 100% committed to their characters and 100% committed to telling McPherson’s tale as well as it can be told. In that sense, “The Seafarer” is an exemplary production—a master class for aspiring actors, but not the sort of production that ordinary theatergoers will gush about to friends. If you’re seeking something to brighten your day or a tune to whistle on the way home, this isn’t it.

Is it possible to beat the devil at his own game? Is it possible to beat the devil that resides in every man’s heart? McPherson, a reformed alcoholic himself, implies that it is, perhaps even accidentally. Brave theatergoers with a tolerance for the dark side of humanity may wish to find out for themselves.

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

 

ProductionSeafarer
Written byConor McPherson
Directed byDavid Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Dec. 21st
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$0 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!----

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Breathtaking “Lungs” at Main Stage West – by Nicole Singley

Pierce and Wright (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Timely subject matter, timeless relationship dynamics, and dazzling performances combine to make “Lungs” the latest triumph in a series of impressive productions to grace the intimate stage at Sebastopol’s Main Stage West this season.

A world increasingly impacted by climate change and overpopulation seeds new worries and doubts for a young couple on the fence about having children. The unnamed pair (Sharia Pierce and Jared N. Wright, both phenomenal) struggle with guilt about their contribution to the carbon footprint and fear of an uncertain future for their offspring. Where does their responsibility to the planet – and each other – end? Though their decision and the aftermath serve as the story’s crux, it’s the ebb and flow of their relationship that really hits home. Global warming is just an ominous backdrop.

. . . a tour de force – visceral, raw, and utterly real.”

Pierce and Wright (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Pierce’s performance is a tour de force – visceral, raw, and utterly real. Wright feeds off of her intensity with equal authenticity, delivering nuanced and heartfelt reactions. The mounting tension, crushing heartbreak, and abiding affection between them is powerful and palpable. It’s a deeply personal and emotionally exhausting experience, rife with elements that will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever been in a tumultuous relationship or pondered what it means to be a parent.

David Lear directs with perfect pacing and thoughtful staging on a minimalistic set, with no props, a simple backdrop, and only some introductory audio for context, keeping the focus entirely on Pierce and Wright. Given the caliber of their acting, this works in the production’s favor.

“Lungs” is a beautiful journey full of philosophical quandaries, anxiety and indecision, human error, love, and loss. It’s hard to imagine Duncan Macmillan’s insightful script in better hands than those of this exceptionally talented cast.

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, Sonoma County’s Marquee Theater Journalists Association, and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

 

ProductionLungs
Written byDuncan Macmillan
Directed byDavid Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough May 26th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Good and Evil Entwined in “Heathen Valley” at Main Stage West – by Barry Willis

Bordi and Craven (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Missionary zeal improves life in an isolated mountain community, with unanticipated personal and social consequences in Romulus Linney’s “Heathen Valley,” directed by Elizabeth and John Craven, at Main Stage West in Sebastopol through April 14.

Set in North Carolina in the 1840s, the story’s central character is an illiterate church janitor named Starns (Kevin Bordi, brilliant), recently released from prison after serving ten years on a manslaughter charge. He wants to make something better of his life and begins a program of late-in-life education as an acolyte to the kindly Bishop Ames (John Craven). Adamant about saving souls, the Bishop enlists his help in an expedition into a hidden valley in the mountains, an area so remote it’s called “the land that God forgot.”

…conveyed with stunning conviction…”

Ames, Starns, and an orphan boy named Billy (Jereme Anglin, also the show’s narrator) embark on a trek that lands them in a community so inbred that marriage between siblings is considered normal, and so economically backward that scratching a few potatoes from the ground is considered a good harvest—fertile territory for Christian reformers. Ames installs Starns as his pastor in the valley. The former illiterate rises to his new responsibility, and having become fond of St. Augustine, preaches a gospel of kindness and understanding. He also helps his flock with practical matters such as improving their agricultural yields and teaching them that it’s best not to mate with close relatives.

Starns’s role in lifting up a blighted community is his personal salvation, one that he assumes with great dignity and purpose. The valley’s people—represented by Juba (mollie boice, perfectly cast), a wise old mountain midwife; Harlan (Elijah Pinkham), an ignorant, volatile hick; and Cora (Miranda Jane Williams), his not-quite-so-ignorant mate—prosper under his tutelage. Starns grows proud of what they achieve together even as his exhausting work takes a toll on his health. This story is conveyed with stunning conviction on a simple set that serves as church, village, and field, with backdrops that evoke the Great Smoky Mountains.

The cast of “Heathen Valley” at Main Stage West (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

While over several years Starns has led his flock out of the muck, the visiting Bishop has taken a more orthodox turn. He comes back to the valley not at all pleased with its simple abundance, happiness, and social order. His only concerns are piety and pious behavior. He’s become a religious conservative, insisting that valley residents wear cassocks (black robes such as worn by Greek Orthodox priests) and stop being so happy. They rebel, permitting only their children to wear dour outfits that make them look “like a bunch of damned crows.” Ames’s defeat cuts him to the core; John Craven portrays that defeat as a personal crucifixion.

The characters in “Heathen Valley” have complex intersecting arcs, and all are portrayed exquisitely, accompanied by mountain music almost too perfect (sound design by Doug Faxon). Linney’s deeply nuanced piece could not have had a better presentation than what’s currently running at Main Stage West. The playwright grew up in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee and was notoriously dismissive of hillbilly stereotypes, but here he brings them each to life: incest, ignorance, witchcraft, and all. He was also deeply aware of the inherent wisdom in primitive people. Even the moronic Harlan recognizes that religious conversion is simply an exercise in swapping one superstition for another. No amount of preaching will ever convince him that virgins can have babies.

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.

 

ProductionHeathen Valley
Written byRomulus Linney
Directed byElizabeth and John Craven
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough April 14th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

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.

 

ProductionSwallow
Written byStef Smith
Directed byMissy Weave
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Jan 27th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone707.823.0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!