AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Cinderella” Delights at Spreckels – by Barry Willis

Law and Graham (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Move over, Disney.

An ancient fairy tale gets a modern reworking in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, through May 26. Classicists will be relieved to learn that the story’s essential elements are still intact: a poor abused girl who dreams of a better life, her domineering stepmother and two nasty stepsisters, a magical fairy godmother, a smitten prince, and the promise of miraculous transformations.

Cinderella’s hope of exchanging her rags for the gowns of a princess is an expression of a persistent human dream, very much like the popular urge to buy lottery tickets week after week despite astronomical odds against winning.

In Cinderella’s case, she actually succeeds—she finds Mr. Right, he finds her, and after much travail they live happily ever after. It’s a timeless story—the basis of almost every piece of “chick lit” ever written. The plain yellow pumpkin still becomes a golden carriage, but Douglas Carter Beane’s version adds a new character and subplot in an attempt to make the story more contemporary: a radical firebrand named Jean-Michel (Michael Coury Murdock), who seeks social justice and economic opportunity for everyone. Instead of having his head lopped off instantly, as would happen in most real threats to ruling class hegemony, he succeeds not only in winning the hand of a mean stepsister (converting her to a decent person in the process) but in getting the prince to agree to sweeping changes to his kingdom. Cinderella wins the man and life of her dreams and her entire society gets to go along for the ride. Participation trophies for all!

Cinderella ensemble (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Director Sheri Lee Miller’s huge cast does a great job conveying the story—one with a 7:00 p.m. evening curtain time in anticipation that hordes of kids will fill the large theater. Brittany Law is marvelous as “Ella” the household maid renamed “Cinderella” by Madame (Daniela Innocenti-Beem) for the dirty work she tirelessly performs. Shawna Eiermann and ScharyPearl Fugitt are excellent as stepsisters Gabrielle and Charlotte, respectively, bringing more nuance to their characters than expected or required. Innocenti-Beem’s Madame takes delight in tormenting poor Cinderella, but has moments of surprising gentility and humor. Musical theater veteran Innocenti-Beem is likely the best singer in the cast but her role limits her to only a few lines of music. Her physical comedy and sense of timing are impeccable.

. . . excellent . . . superb family fare . . .”

Zachary Hasbany is superb as “Prince Topher”—the character’s name another nod to contemporaneity—with a good singing voice and fine sense of movement. The prince—a big guy himself—swings a giant sword in slaying a giant dragon (offstage) but the horse he rides is comically undersized. It’s one of few glitches in the otherwise excellent production. The worst is the huge suspension of disbelief required of the audience when Cinderella goes barefaced to the masked ball where the prince falls for her. Later when scouring the realm for her, he can’t recognize her until her foot fits the shoe she didn’t lose but intentionally gave to him. These twists on the original story aren’t improvements.

Larry Williams is gleefully evil as the conniving Sebastian, the prince’s minister, a sort of fairytale Rasputin, and Sean O’Brien matches him as Lord Pinkleton, another royal court sycophant. A gifted singer, O’Brien has a couple of breakout moments in the show’s many musical numbers. A high point is “Impossible” late in the first act, in which the ragged Marie (Mary Gannon Graham) is transformed into a fairy godmother who in turn transforms mice into liveried footmen, a pumpkin into a carriage, and Cinderella into a potential princess. Graham beautifully channels Billie Burke (Glinda the Good from “The Wizard of Oz”) in this bit, a duet of “Impossible” with Law, and the transformation is one of the show’s great illusions. Many times nominated for critical awards, choreographer Michella Snider is at her best. Group and individual dances and movements are delightful and take full advantage of the theater’s big stage and clear sight lines.

Set design by Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen is gorgeous and facile, enabling quick set changes that keep the show moving briskly. Chris Schloemp’s huge colorful projections are stunning. Pamela Johnson’s and Chelsa Lindam’s costumes are gorgeous. Music director Paul Smith’s orchestra—in the pit, stage front—sounds tremendous. What’s not to like? All things considered, this “Cinderella” is excellent. Appropriate for all audiences, of course, it’s superb family fare that won’t require parents to do a lot of explaining when they get home—except for the fact that the “golden carriage” isn’t yellow. For that, you can simply say “It’s white gold.”

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

 

 

ProductionCinderella
Written byBook and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein
Music by Richard Rodgers
Additional material by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed bySheri Lee Miller; Music Directed by Paul Smith
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough May 26th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$18 - $36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

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

Pierce and Wright (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

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

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

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

Pierce and Wright (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: Solid, Mostly Rewarding Effort in 6th Street’s “Mockingbird”– by Barry Willis

Jourdan Olivier-Verdé as Tom Robinson (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

A disabled black man accused of attempting to rape a white girl is defended by small-town Alabama lawyer Atticus Finch in the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” through May 19 at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa.

It’s the midst of a long hot summer in 1935, and Finch’s pursuit of justice puts himself and his family at risk—something he accepts despite inevitable personal and social consequences. Directed by Marty Pistone, Christopher Sergal’s 1990 stage adaptation of the classic Harper Lee novel is conveyed as a closely-related collection of reminiscences by Atticus’s adult daughter Jean Louise Finch (Ellen Rawley).

Since its debut in 1960, Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel has never gone out of print, and for decades has been required reading in many high schools in the US. Based on incidents that took place in her hometown and elsewhere in the South not only in the 1930’s, but much later, it depicts circumstances unique to the time and place but also regrettably universal. The evidence against the accused man, Tom Robinson (Jourdan Olivier-Verdé) is flimsy at best, but Finch’s unassailable logic and conviction are insufficient to overcome the racist hysteria infecting the townspeople of Maycomb.

Robinson’s fate is disturbing—one that Atticus Finch (Jeff Coté) can see coming but is powerless to prevent. His dismay is shared by the town’s sheriff, Heck Tate (Tom Glynn), with whom he is amicable, even friendly. Finch is a disheveled moralist, whose rumpled suit and fatigued demeanor belie his intelligence and commitment to justice. Tate, on the other hand, is a pragmatist whose sense of justice has been leavened by the necessities of keeping a town running smoothly. His pragmatism is shared by Judge Taylor (Alan Kaplan), the cigar-chomping realist presiding over the Robinson trial. An odd bit of set design has the judge sitting behind a comically small bench, almost a cartoon parody. Surely set designer Alayna Klein could find something more imposing and appropriate.

Jeff Coté as Atticus Finch (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

A secondary plot involves Finch’s children—a boy, Jem (Mario Giani Herrera), his younger sister “Scout” (Cecilia Brenner, confident and spunky), and their friend Dill (the exuberant Liev Bruce-Low)—and their fascination with a scary reclusive neighbor named Boo Radley (Conor Woods, also this production’s technical diretor), and their desire to understand the events taking place around them. They never see Boo outside, but he communicates with the children by leaving mysterious gifts in the hollow of a tree. Late in the story, the fearsome creature lurking in a dark house emerges as an avenging angel.

. . . a gospel choir . . . opens and closes the show . . .”

The whole affair takes place on the front porch and in the yard of the Finch house, transformed with a few props into the Maycomb court house, and at the homes of nearby neighbors—all of it beautifully realized by Klein. In an unusually creative twist, the town’s black residents are also a gospel choir. Their glorious music opens and closes the show, and is used as transition between key scenes. Nicholas Augusta, who plays Reverend Sykes, mentioned after the opening performance that “Hold On” is a venerable spiritual, but that other songs were composed for the show by music director Branise McKenzie, aided by her singers. The addition of these singers to this classic production is a wonderful touch. Lighting by April George contributes greatly to the overall feel of the show.

Ensemble Choir (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Pistone’s cast is generally very good, with standout performances by Val Sinkler as Calpurnia, the Finch housekeeper; Caitlin Strom-Martin as supposed victim Mayella Ewell; and Mike Pavone as the insufferably ignorant redneck drunk Bob Ewell, Mayella’s father. Ella Jones is also excellent as Tom Robinson’s young daughter. Inexplicably, the show’s only Equity actor, Jeff Coté, seems less than fully committed to the lead role.

The language and attitudes in this production are authentic and haven’t been sanitized for the sake of political correctness. Without explicit polemics, “To Kill a Mockingbird” elucidates the eternal conflict between human rationality and ignorance. The production at 6th Street is a good reminder of how important it is to continue promoting knowledge of that conflict.

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

 

ProductionTo Kill a Mockingbird
Written byBook by Harper Lee
Adapted by Christopher Sergal
Directed byMarty Pistone
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
G.K. Hardt Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$25 – $35
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: “Jazz” Dissects Life to Imitate Music at MTC – by Cari Pace

Clockwise, left to right: Troy, Tenille, Sullivan, Wright, Hall, Mayes, Lacy (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne)

The dictionary defines “jazz” as American music developed from ragtime and blues and characterized by propulsive syncopated rhythms, polyphonic ensemble playing, varying degrees of improvisation, and often deliberate distortions of pitch and timbre.

It’s an accurate parallel to Nambi Kelley’s latest play “Jazz,” just opened at the Marin Theatre Company in Mill Valley. All the jazz components are here, dissected on stage. Based on the book by Toni Morrison and directed by Awoye Timpo, this production propels story lines, characters, and time frames from 1920s Virginia cotton fields to NYC’s Harlem. It’s not a musical and there are no instruments onstage, although Marcus Shelby’s music adds to the texture of the performance.

“Jazz” opens with a young girl’s funeral, then aggressively explodes into a polyphonic ensemble of an emotional wife and a cuckolded husband, surrounded by busybodies. A colorful talking and singing parrot joins the cacophony in an over-the-top role by multi-talented Paige Mayes.

Just let it waft over and enjoy.”

With jazz music, a bluesy baseline melody can be ephemeral, quickly punctuated then disappearing. It typically returns later, played by another instrument or in a different key. The well-worn story lines in “Jazz” follow this lead.

Wright, Mayes, Sullivan (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne)

Post-funeral, a flashback begins with the blues. It’s a mother’s suicide, and a young girl (C. Kelly Wright) is sent off to work the cotton fields. Boy (Michael Gene Sullivan) meets girl, they enjoy some happy married years, then husband meets younger girl (Dezi Soley), younger girl tempts then taunts husband, husband rages out of control, wife rages at girl’s funeral. And we’re back where we started, almost.

A reappearing melody or theme is a familiar and welcoming ploy in every genre of music, yet difficult to manage on the stage. Threads of several story lines in “Jazz” repeat stage right, then left, with minor changes in pitch and timbre. These flashbacks can be confusing; it’s best not to fret. Just let it waft over and enjoy.

The actors put a lot of energy into their roles, although without mikes many quick spoken lines are lost. Local favorite Margo Hall plays multiple roles with skillful versatility while Lisa Lacy, Dane Troy and Tiffany Tenille complete the talented cast. They dance ragtime, sing snippets of spiritual songs, and make the most of the “devil music” in “Jazz.”

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

 

ProductionJazz
Written byAdapted by Nambi E. Kelley
Based on the book by Toni Morrison
Music by Marcus Shelby
Directed byDirected by Awoye Timpo
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$10 – $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Astounding, Shocking Realism in “The Jungle” at the Curran – by Barry Willis

Jonathan Nyati and Ben Turner (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

A crisis in a refugee camp comes roaring to life each night in “The Jungle,” at The Curran through May 19. San Francisco is the third stop for this astounding international touring production, which originated in London and then moved to New York.

Conceived and written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, and directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, “The Jungle” has won universal acclaim. The co-playwrights lived in the sprawling multi-ethnic refugee camp in Calais, France during its peak, 2015-2016, when its approximately 8000 residents lived peaceably if contentiously with each other while enduring continual harassment from French authorities. The production is a full-immersion experience that puts most of the audience in the midst of a large shantytown café — called “Salar’s Restaurant” or the “Afghan Café”— that served as a community center for the camp. The high-intensity story encompasses the final few months of the camp’s  existence, before it was destroyed by French police in October 2016.

Arya Rose Lohmor and Ammar Haj Ahmad (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

The elegant interior of the recently renovated Curran has been converted to a plywood-and-rough-framing temporary structure where the audience sits on hard wooden benches, sipping fragrant tea while arguments rage among the camp’s residents about what to do in the face of increasing pressure from French authorities. Several British aid workers try their best to help, to intervene, and in some cases, to transport refugees across the channel to Kent — a horrendously frustrating and occasionally comic effort for everyone involved. Two dozen impassioned actors wander among the audience, murmuring and shouting at each other in English, French, Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Kurdish, and several African languages as the crisis builds, reinforced by real news clips on television sets placed here and there around the café (video design by Duncan McLean and Tristan Shepherd).

…the most intense and profound theatrical event any of us will ever encounter.”

A huge extended table serves as a thrust stage where most of the drama and a few moments of levity and hope take place — including several confrontations with haughty French officials and condescending police — interspersed with tales of unbelievable hardships endured by refugees from throughout the Middle East and Africa in their quest for a better life away from the violence of their homelands. Among these are stories of leaving behind all they owned, knew, and loved, walking thousands of miles, enduring kidnappings, torture, and extortion, and embarking on perilous attempts to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded inflatable rubber boats or being packed by the hundreds into leaky ships with little chance of reaching their destinations. Such a tale is told in an unwavering voice by a clear-eyed Sudanese boy named Okot (John Pfumojena).

Ammar Haj Ahmad and John Pfumojena (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

What these refugees endure in their quest for peace and freedom is horrific, as is their cold reception by Europeans. French duplicity gets deserved exposure as politicians pay lip service to human rights while planning to eliminate the camp. Despite its self-image as a nation of asylum, France does not have a glowing history in support of human rights — Haiti’s crushing poverty, for example, is the result of terms imposed by France when the island nation sought independence.

The show’s denouement is among the most shattering you are likely ever to experience in any theater. Its hyper-realism will shock you to the core and at the very least make you reconsider our own refugee crisis. “The Jungle” may be the most intense and profound theatrical event any of us will ever encounter.

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

 

ProductionThe Jungle
Written byJoe Murphy and Joe Robertson
Directed byStephen Daldry and Justin Martin
Producing CompanySonia Friedman Productions with Tom Kirdahy present the Good Chance Theatre, National Theatre and Young Vic production
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production AddressThe Curran
445 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone(415) 358-1220
Tickets$25 – $165
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Praise for Hershey Felder’s “A Paris Love Story” – by Victor Cordell

Hershey Felder occupies a unique and enviable position in the world of live entertainment. He has created a series of solo theatrical performances that draw on his powerful strengths of master story telling and piano playing. And if the subjects of the shows aren’t all personal heroes, which they probably are, each is a brilliant star in the constellation of great music composers. He has written and performed music biographies for the stage of Gershwin, Bernstein, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and more at some of the finest performance venues in the country, often breaking box office records.

He now takes on the life and works of Claude Debussy in a world premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. The great turn of the century composer is credited as the originator of the classical music genre of impressionism, though he didn’t care for the term. But his compositional style led to the designation because of its parallel with impressionist painting with its shimmering, ethereal quality like the dizzying, elusive mix of colors on canvas representing tangible items.

As with his previous successes, Felder weaves together a composer’s music with biographical highlights, but the structure of his newest work differs. He avows that Debussy actually is his favorite composer. At the age of 19, Felder visited Paris and haunted the places and followed the footsteps where Debussy trod, including a pilgrimage two hours on foot each way to visit the composer’s apartment. Because of this special connection with Debussy, Felder’s theatrical conceit is to insinuate his own story in with that of the composer. The device works well both because Felder himself has a following and because of his personal passion for the composer and the city. The one jolting aspect of the new production is that in Felder’s catalog of titles written for the stage, Debussy’s name does not appear except in the likely ignored third line of the title.

Felder (Photo Credit: Christopher Ash)

The performance takes place on a darkened stage, with a few props emblematic of Paris. Animated chalk figures festoon a black backdrop to further depict the architecture and the ambiance of the city. Hershey Felder plays with brio at the black Steinway grand and regales, often with great humor. Interspersing his own growth and his travelogue with the compositions and many loves of Debussy, he details many vignettes, including attempted suicides by two of his love interests.

Despite his esteem as a respected composer, Debussy works are perhaps not as broadly popular as Felder’s other honorees. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and La Mer are well known, and opera aficionados will know the important opera Pelléas and Mélisande, though it is seldom performed or excerpted onto recordings. But the musical extracts that Felder plays charm and scintillate, including those less likely to have been heard by audience members before. The jaunty piano solo for children, Golliwog’s Cakewalk, is a fine example that also reflects the composer’s iterative relationship with African-American musical forms.

…clever and enticing… engenders anticipation…”

Felder does note the critical role that Debussy’s innovativeness played in directing classical music away from the weightiness of Wagnerian romanticism. Debussy felt that music should reflect the delightful way people feel when they engage with nature. Influenced by a Javanese gamelan performance he witnessed in 1889, he adopted the whole note scale, which facilitates the dreamy sound that is associated with impressionism. With this change, he not only disrupted the direction of classical music but also developed the musical vocabulary that led to improvisational jazz as best realized by the great pianist Art Tatum.

Felder (Photo Credit: Christopher Ash)

Of course, Debussy’s signature piece which makes him a household name and exemplifies his dream-like musical style is Claire de lune. Felder’s treatment of this piece is clever and enticing. He opens the performance with the story of how he learned the piece, his mother’s favorite, at age six. By playing only a brief but familiar phrase from it, he engenders anticipation for the work throughout the performance. It comes as the finale, and it is played with such grace and delicacy that it quieted the venue and had the audience on the edge of its seats – a worthy finish to a fine confection.

This review must close on a tragic note. As I write on April 15, 2019, one of the world’s great architectural masterpieces and cultural assets for all of civilization, Paris’s Cathédrale de Notre Dame, is engulfed in flame. This is a great loss to humanity. Indeed, this landmark is significant to A Paris Love Story, as the author speaks warmly of Notre Dame and of the magic of point zero, the designated spot in front of the cathedral that represents the symbolic center of Paris. The spot will remain, but can any of the cathedral be saved or reclaimed for posterity?

ASR reviewer Victor Cordell is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association, and a Theatre Bay Area adjudicator.

 

 

ProductionA Paris Love Story
Written byHershey Felder
Directed byTrevor Hay
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThrough May 5th
Production AddressMountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA 94041
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(650) 463-1960
Tickets$35 – $113
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
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 PICK! Laughs Served Well-Done in “Barbecue Apocalypse” – by Nicole Singley

Headington and Coughlin (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Do you have what it takes to survive the end of days? Three couples put their skills to the test in Matt Lyle’s tremendously funny “Barbecue Apocalypse,” playing at Rohnert Park’s Spreckels Performing Arts Center through April 20th.

Thirty-somethings Deb (Jessica Headington) and husband Mike (Sam Coughlin) are frantically preparing to host their closest frenemies for a backyard cookout. Bemoaning their half-mowed lawn, mismatched patio furniture and dorm room-esque house decor, Deb fears they can’t possibly impress well-to-do “yupsters” Lulu (Lyndsey Sivalingam) and husband Ash (Trevor Hoffmann), or sleazy penthouse-dwelling Win (J.T. Harper) and his younger girlfriend Glory (Katie Kelley). Mike’s crowning achievement, after all, is the humble deck they’re standing on, and neither he nor Deb can keep a simple garden plant alive.

Clockwise, left to right: Headington, Coughlin, Harper, Sivalingam, Hoffmann (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

When a calamitous event interrupts their awkward party, the group must find their niche in a post-apocalyptic world where once-considered strengths may now be vulnerabilities, and talents formerly perceived as useless could be advantageous. This brave new world offers Mike and Deb a chance to shine, while alpha-male Win shrivels from over-confident womanizer into sobbing, bathrobe-clad mess. Dynamics shift but the grill goes on, until an uninvited guest (Matt T. Witthaus) threatens to end the festivities once and for all.

Don’t miss this witty, laugh-a-minute romp…”

Headington is a riot as neurotic housewife turned spear-wielding survivalist. She makes the jarring transition with remarkable ease, hauling in act two’s blood-spattered dinner – “raccoon, the other red meat!” – with an air of self-possession entirely in contrast to her anxious, pre-apocalyptic stumbling over cocktail umbrellas and fashion accessories. It’s equally satisfying to watch Coughlin’s understated Mike transform from insecure would-be writer to confident grill-master and gardener extraordinaire.

Sivalingam is superb as lovably pretentious Lulu, whose flippant remarks flow faster than the mango margaritas she’s a little too fond of. Hoffmann’s Ash is the painfully familiar portrait of a modern-day screen junkie, forced to settle for library books in a now Google-less world. The apocalypse, as luck would have it, is a boon to their marriage, bringing Lulu back down to earth and pulling Ash away from YouTube. It’s fun to watch their newfound spark ignite.

Clockwise, left to right: Headington, Kelley, Harper, Sivalingam (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Harper’s Win feels a bit overdone, dripping in stereotypical frat-boy machismo. It’s a hat that doesn’t quite fit, although it serves its comedic purpose all the same. Kelley is endearing in the role of a perky wannabe Rockette, even though she spends much of her time onstage aggressively swapping spit with Harper. Witthaus delivers a truly chilling cameo appearance.

An able cast excels under Larry Williams’s direction, assisted by Marcy Frank’s pitch-perfect costumes and Elizabeth Bazzano’s thoughtful backyard set. Jessica Johnson brings finicky lawn mowers, angry raccoons and propane grills to life with well-timed sound effects.

Marinated in millennial-centric humor, “Barbecue Apocalypse” makes lighthearted fun out of some fairly dark subject matter. Don’t miss this witty, laugh-a-minute romp – or you just might live long enough to regret it.

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.

 

ProductionBarbecue Apocalypse
Written byMatt Lyle
Directed byLarry Williams
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough April 20th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$16-$26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: “A Perfect Ganesh” Imperfectly Rendered at Cinnabar – by Barry Willis

Two upper-middle-class middle-aged women find that a journey through India turns their contentious relationship into something deeper and more rewarding in “A Perfect Ganesh,” directed by Michael Fontaine at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater through April 14.

Terence McNally’s AIDS-era story has huge potential to be both heart-rending and heart-warming, a potential that’s sadly under-exploited in this flat, lugubrious production. The two women, Margaret Civil (Laura Jorgensen), and Katharine Brynne (Elly Lichenstein), alter their usual holiday plans for an adventure in India, an undertaking that prompts anxiety in both of them, heightened by an opening-scene mishap with their airline tickets that threatens to make them miserable. Watching over them is Ganesha (Heren Patel), god of luck and opportunity, the travelers’ unseen companion. He appears at each critical moment in the story, guiding and helping but never intruding. The title refers to Katharine’s incessant search for a keepsake figurine, one of many behaviors that annoy Margaret.

Civil is cranky and demanding; Brynne forgetful, eagerly curious. They know each from their social circle in an uppercrust part of Connecticut, not really close when first introduced to us, but reasonably comfortable with each other. Their constant bickering belies their friendship, whose evolution is the play’s dramatic arc. It’s an arc that goes far—the two become close after several revelations of private tragedies and sharings of personal truth—but not very high. The dramatic peaks and valleys that might have given this story emotional texture have mostly been leveled and filled. Both actresses are veterans of long experience, so this squashing of emotional dynamics can only be interpreted as a directorial decision.

…as arduous as a train ride through India.”

Heren Patel is competent as the elephant-headed god, with an amiable, sometimes comedic delivery. His movements are elegant and fluid but his elephant headpiece interferes with the clarity of his speech. It’s not clear if some of his funny bits are intentional, such as Ganesha’s appearance to the travelers in the form of a Japanese tourist with an almost Italian accent.

The show’s saving grace is John Browning, who confidently plays all the male characters referred to by Margaret and Katharine—suitor, husband, son, and more. He also appears as many incidental characters—ticket agent, porter, guide—completely changing character with only slight changes in costume.

The music by Christopher and Marni Ris is compelling, but the stagecraft is slow and noisy as large pieces get shoved about and huge curtains pulled back and forth. The playbill lists running time at two and a quarter hours, but on opening weekend it was closer to three, or seemed like it. Like any foreign journey, “A Perfect Ganesh” offers experiences and insights available no other way, but getting to them is likely to feel as arduous as a train ride through India.

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.

 

ProductionA Perfect Ganesh
Written byTerrence McNally
Directed byMichael Fontaine
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough April 14th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$28 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall2.5/5
Performance3/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft2/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: Great Acting Can’t Overcome Script in “The Revolutionists” – by Barry Willis

The French Revolution was a bloody mess. That’s putting it in the mildest possible terms. The country’s 18th century bankruptcy and crushing poverty led to an uprising that in turn became the Reign of Terror in which many thousands of real and imaginary enemies of the new state were imprisoned and killed. A civil war was a strong possibility.

At the same time, surrounding countries fearing that anti-royalty sentiment would spread, and seeing many opportunities in a weakened France, sought to conquer the bourgeoning democracy. This set the stage for the rise of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, one of history’s most egomaniacal and brutal dictators.

Almost 17,000 people were executed during the peak year of the Reign of Terror, from summer 1793 to summer 1794—an average of 45 per day, a sustained orgy of head-chopping. Many executions took place in Paris; the guillotine was a popular form of entertainment. All this to establish a new form of government and economy based on the slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (freedom, equality, brotherhood)—high ideals riddled with hypocrisy, as playwright Lauren Gunderson makes clear in “The Revolutionists,” in the studio theater at 6th Street Playhouse through April 7.

Flores and Revelos (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Gunderson places one fictional and three historical figures into her theatrical caldron then applies heat to see what will happen, with mixed results. The primary figure is writer and political activist Olympe de Gourges (Equity actress Tara Howley Hudson), a champion of the rights of women and minorities and an outspoken critic of the Reign of Terror who went to the guillotine on November 3, 1793. Two strong secondary characters are Marie Antoinette (Lydia Revelos, fantastic), whose lavish spending was widely believed to be the cause of France’s massive financial problems, and Charlotte Corday (Chandler Parrott-Thomas), who assassinated revolutionary firebrand Jean-Paul Marat and was beheaded four days later. The fourth figure is Marianne Angelle (Serena Elize Flores), a fictional character who advocates for the rights of women and oppressed minorities. “How about liberté, égalité, sororité?” she asks.

…compellingly rendered and superbly well performed, but… doesn’t overcome the script’s fundamental difficulties.” 

Both stagecraft and acting are first-rate under the direction of Lennie Dean, especially by Hudson and Revelos, but this adventure into “metatheater” is seriously overwrought, the kind of play that might be more at home as a graduate effort by an art school drama club. The characters interact with each other—only experts in French history could state whether any of them actually met—and with their audience, smothered with abstruse intellectualisms as only the French can spin them, and arcane (for Americans, anyway) historical references. Ultimately, we learn that the whole convoluted affair is something bubbling in Olympe de Gourges’s soon-to-be-detached head, as she struggles to do something with enduring impact in her last few days—a dramatic structure very much like the film “Jacob’s Ladder,” where the final reveal is that the foregoing story has taken place in a dying soldier’s mind.

“The Revolutionists” is compellingly rendered and superbly well performed, but the excellence of the performance doesn’t overcome the script’s fundamental difficulties. It’s a prickly but rewarding show for those with theatrical fortitude and better-than-average understanding of both history and its presentation as entertainment. The Thursday April 4 performance features a talkback after the show, recommended.

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

 

ProductionThe Revolutionists
Written byLauren Gunderson
Directed byLennie Dean
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough April 7th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
Studio Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$18 – $28
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Bingo, the Musical” Offers Great Silly Fun – by Barry Willis

Through April 7, the intimate stage at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions is transformed into a VFW bingo hall where three women brave the elements to vie for power, glory—and maybe a handful of petty cash—in a raucous production of “Bingo, the Winning Musical.”

The friends, Vern, Honey and Patsy, dead-serious Bingo fanatics all, converge to compete on the fifteenth anniversary of Vern’s split with her former friend Bernice (Jennifer Brookman), an event so traumatic that the two have never reconciled. It’s an injustice that Bernice’s daughter Alison (Pilar Gonzalez) is determined to make right.

Lundstrom, Innocenti Beem, and Rider (Photo courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

Outlandish challenges—“I’m a professional bingo player!” shouts Vern (the irrepressible Daniela Innocenti Beem)—an attempted seduction of the game’s number caller Sam (Tim Setzer) by the flirtatious Honey (Shannon Rider), and the invocation of spirits, talismans, and good-luck charms by the addled Patsy (Sarah Lundstrom) are only part of the fun, all watched over by Minnie (Karen Pinomaki), a mischievous sprite who manages the hall, an authentic recreation of such places found in almost every town in America. Lucky Penny’s set includes a real numbers board, a rotating hopper to randomize the balls, and bingo cards for each member of the audience, encouraged to play along at least three times in the course of the show. Napa just happens to be home base for a major distributor of bingo equipment. Who knew?

Infectiously energetic… great silly lightweight fun…”

Add to this some spectacular singing in ensemble numbers such as “Girls Night Out,” “Anyone Can Play Bingo,” “I  Still Believe in You,” “Under My Wing,” and “Ratched’s Lament.” Solo numbers are also superb (music direction by Craig Burdette), including “I’ve Made Up My Mind” (Alison), “Patsy’s Flashback,” “Swell” (Vern), and “Gentleman Caller” (Honey). Where else can you see a “straightjacket ballet” (choreography by Staci Arriaga and Taylor Bartolucci) in which bingo gals go all out like a bunch of lunatics recently released from the asylum? Does bingo make its players crazy or are they a little bit that way from the start?

Infectiously energetic, “Bingo, the Winning Musical” doesn’t offer profound messages or cosmic revelations, but—perhaps more appealing—it does ultimately set aside the petty resentments that infect us all in favor of enduring friendship among charmingly ordinary people. Tickets are money well spent on a couple hours of great silly lightweight fun with the added benefit of a potential sweep of “blackout” or “crazy snakes.” You can’t win if you don’t play.

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.

 

ProductionBingo, the Winning Musical
Written byMichael Heitzman, Ilene Reid and David Holcenberg
Directed byTaylor Bartolucci; Music Directed by Craig Burdette
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough April 7th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “The Nether” Enthralls at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

Imagine a virtual world in which you are free to live out your darkest fantasies without repercussion – a perfectly rendered, immersive escape from reality, wherein you can look, speak, and act as you please, your identity securely concealed.

But what makes something real? If a virtual experience has the power to make us think and feel, is it truly artificial? Are our choices ever free from consequence?

By turns philosophical and eerily prophetic, “The Nether” – making its Sonoma County premiere at Left Edge Theatre through March 24th –invites us into such a world, raising these and many other timely questions about morality and culpability in the digital era. But before “logging in,” users be warned: unsettling subject matter is in no short supply here.

Schloemp and Rosa (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

We open on a bleak interrogation room at an unspecified time in the future. Detective Morris (Leila Rosa) sits across from a man in old-fashioned clothing with a guarded demeanor. What was once the internet has evolved into the Nether – an immense network of online realms in which students attend virtual schools, employees telecommute to virtual offices, and people like Mr. Sims (Chris Schloemp) log in to indulge their innermost desires.

Sims – or “Papa,” as his avatar is known – is the proprietor of a realm dubbed the Hideaway, an elaborately designed Victorian home conjuring up a hypnotic nostalgia for simpler times past with its ornate furniture and poplar-lined vistas. Visitors can enjoy a stiff drink, dance along to old records on the gramophone, or molest and dismember prepubescent girls.

Morris is determined to shut the Hideaway down and hold Sims accountable for his gruesome crimes – crimes committed, that is, by and against avatars in the Nether. But has anyone really been hurt? Morris presses Hideaway participant Mr. Doyle (David L. Yen) for incriminating details, her own composure slowly crumbling in the process.

Wright and Spring (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

We cut between the interrogation room and scenes inside the Hideaway, where we meet Iris (the stellar Lana Spring) – Papa’s favorite little girl – and Mr. Woodnut (Jared N. Wright), an undercover agent sent to gather evidence for Morris’s investigation. Mr. Woodnut has honorable intentions, but soon discovers the lines between personal and professional – as well as virtual and actual – are hard to draw inside this realm. He is bewitched by the Hideaway and all it has to offer, becoming himself a reluctant participant in Papa’s twisted world.

…haunting, thought-provoking, and disturbingly relevant…”

It is evident Director Argo Thompson has chosen his cast with care. Schloemp brings grace and finesse to a difficult role, making Sims remarkably sympathetic given his deviant inclinations. Wright is compelling as the well-meaning detective, grappling with unexpected temptation and fearful self-reflection. Yen delivers a surprisingly heart-rending performance as the reticent and wounded Mr. Doyle. Spring’s Iris is ethereal and deeply felt, adding much to the story’s emotional impact. (It’s important to note that Spring is an adult, and that the worst of what happens is not depicted on-stage.)

Rosa is arguably the only weak link. She doesn’t seem at home in her role, and the opening scenes are a bit awkward because of this. Her behavior may be intentional, however, given what we learn later in the show.

Yen (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Thompson’s set anchors the interrogation room at its center, flanked on both sides by rooms within the Hideaway, keeping us tethered to reality as we experience the virtual world. His crew has chosen fitting furniture and props for the Hideaway, and the interrogation room feels adequately cold and futuristic. Schloemp’s projections are an effective enhancement, transforming the interrogation room’s table into an interactive portal to the Nether.

Joe Winkler has set the show to an appropriately ominous soundtrack, from floor-shaking electronic overtures to the crackle and pop of old-timey tunes on Papa’s Victrola. There’s a moment of eerie dissonance near the show’s end when the soundtracks from both worlds collide, as the real and virtual begin to meld.

Act one is weighed down by philosophical quandary and is slow to build momentum. When the pieces begin to fall together, however, the pace accelerates into a second act rich with chilling developments and surprising revelations, and an ending that begs as many questions as it answers.

Though not for the faint-hearted, “The Nether” is a haunting, thought-provoking, and disturbingly relevant ride well worth taking if you can stomach the subject matter. Playwright Jennifer Haley pulls us out of our comfort zone and thrusts us into this dark exploration of a not-so-far-off future that could very well become our own.

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

 

 

ProductionThe Nether
Written byJennifer Haley
Directed byArgo Thompson
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 24th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Rollicking “Million Dollar Quartet” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

In recent years the jukebox musical has become a staple of American theater, in which a collection of great songs gets tied together with a plausible narrative and dramatic arc. “Million Dollar Quartet” fits snugly into this tradition, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street playhouse through March 24.

A fictionalized account of a real event—an evening in early December, 1956, when Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley converged and performed at Sun Studios in Memphis—the show is a rousing piece of Americana and a tour de force of iconic early rock ’n’ roll. An amalgam of African-American blues and gospel and white Southern folk music, rock emerged in the postwar period, giving voice to a new generation and shocking the cultural establishment both in the United States and Europe. Its pervasive effects continue to this day.

…a rousing piece of Americana and a tour de force of iconic early rock ’n’ roll… do not miss this show.”

Directed by Bay Area theater veteran Michael Ray Wisely, who has performed in and directed other productions of “Million Dollar Quartet,” the 6th Street show features two performers from the national touring production—Daniel Durston as Elvis and Steve Lasiter as Johnny Cash. Sonoma County actor/musician Jake Turner is superb as Carl Perkins, as is his guitar playing, and music director Nick Kenrick is astounding as the frenetic Jerry Lee Lewis.

(Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Samantha Arden does a lovely turn as Dyanne, Elvis’s girlfriend, while Benjamin Stowe anchors the whole affair as Sam Phillips, the producer/recording engineer widely acknowledged as the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” And let’s not forget drummer Nick Ambrosino and bassist Shovanny Delgado Carillo, who provide infectious drive to the music of the four ersatz superstars. Conor Woods’s adaptation of the original set design is substantial, compelling, and versatile.

The song list includes a couple dozen classics from the early 1950s, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’,“ all of them stunningly rendered. This reviewer saw the national touring production, and 6th Street’s is just as good. If you’re a fan of that era, do not miss this show. Even if you’re only mildly fond of early rock, it’s still a really fun way to spend an evening.

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.

 

ProductionMillion Dollar Quartet
Written byColin Escott & Floyd Mutrux
Directed byMichael Ray Wisely; Music Directed by Nick Kenrick
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough March 24th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$40 – $48
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW! Foothill’s “Bullets over Broadway” Hits its Mark – by Victor Cordell

At the core of his comic genius, Woody Allen creates fictional lead characters who share his neuroses. He then places them in situations rich with local color based on his own experience and observation.

With Bullets over Broadway, he wrote a highly successful screenplay for a movie that received considerable award recognition. In transitioning the story to the stage and adding music, it was honored with six Tony nominations, but its box office outcome was modest at best. Perhaps its failure to earn a long run is because it entertains but doesn’t wow.

Rejection and crises of confidence plague authors, and in this instance, the Woody Allen proxy is a young playwright, David Shayne, whose break to get financing for his first Broadway-destined play comes with a catch. Borrowing a theme that Allen and many others have used before, the finance depends on giving a role in the play to the girlfriend of the money man.

Oh, and in this case, the money man happens to be a gangster. Needless to say, the girlfriend is as talentless as she is witless, and with a whiny-screechy voice that is the reincarnation of Jean Hagen in the movie Singin’ in the Rain. To make matters worse, rehearsals reveal great inadequacies in David’s manuscript. But an unlikely source will put the project on the right path and dramatically alter the future of David and his collaborators.

Allen resisted the theatrical conversion of this property but having a taste for pop standards, was finally convinced by the suggestion that the musical score be comprised of songs from the period of the action. This strategy works in giving the music an authenticity and a pleasant familiarity with tunes like “Let’s Misbehave,” “Up a Lazy River,” and “There’ll be Some Changes Made.” Many updated lyrics enliven the old chestnuts, fit the plot line, and are quite funny.

…Foothill Music Theatre’s production offers … gusto and … humor … for a fun evening…

At the same time, its period characteristics may be what prevents Bullets from unqualified success, especially with younger audiences. In addition to its ‘20s music, the plotline intersection of Broadway and gangsters evokes Damon Runyon’s stories that were used as the basis for the musical Guys and Dolls and may seem dated.

However, Bullets contains a bevy of stereotyped characters that provide charm – from the fading diva to the actor whose food urges undermine his career – and stock situations like the playwright resisting script changes to maintain his integrity and the younger man being seduced by the lure of an older woman.

Overall, Foothill Music Theatre’s production offers enough gusto and extracts enough humor from the material for a fun evening. Not to say that it meets professional standards, but as a community theater offering, it satisfies. Most performers have peaks and valleys in both singing and acting, but each has high points that are quite worthy. Singing voices tend to have strong sweet spots that diminish outside that narrow range. And while the situational humor is uneven, the many one-line zingers uniformly hit the target.

Early on, Adam Cotungno as David seems caught between channeling Woody Allen and establishing his own role interpretation. By Act 2, both his acting and vocalizations exude confidence, and when he frantically delivers “The Panic is On,” he nails it. His nemesis is Olive, played convincingly by Jocelyn Pinkett, who inhabits the lower-class floozy with flair. Carla Befera hits her stride as the prideful and self-indulgent older actress, Helen, with a fine rendition of the appropriate “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle.” Finally, Nick Mandracchia masters the role of Cheech, the man in the shadows.

Milissa Carey directs commendably considering the resource requirements of the production. Bullets contains a huge number of scene changes. Andrew Breithaupt’s basic set is complemented by a revolving platform and a cache of movable props to give simple scenic suggestion, while Lily McLeod’s lighting effectively evokes mood shifts. Dance elements are demanding, and Claire Alexander’s choreography generally works, but execution is often out of kilter. Sharon Peng deserves a nod for the scope of costumery required for the production.

ASR reviewer Victor Cordell is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association, and a Theatre Bay Area adjudicator.

 

 

ProductionBullets Over Broadway
Written byWoody Allen
Directed byMilissa Carey
Producing CompanyFoothill Music Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 17th
Production Address12345 El Monte Rd.
Los Altos Hills, CA 94022
Websitehttps://foothill.edu/theatre/bullets.html
Telephone(650) 949-7360
Tickets$15 - $36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Hello, Dolly!” An Eye-popping Extravaganza at the Golden Gate Theatre – by Barry Willis

A multiple Tony winner and perennial favorite since its 1964 debut, “Hello, Dolly!” was for decades a star vehicle for recently departed Carol Channing, the performer most associated with the lead role of yenta and all-around advice giver Dolly Gallagher Levi.

The legendary Betty Buckley handles the lead with aplomb in the sumptuous national touring show, at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Theatre through mid-March. In other productions, Dolly has been inhabited by Bette Midler and other top talents. Ms. Buckley manages to make the character her own without referencing any of the other stars that have taken it on, a major achievement in its own right.

…an absolute extravaganza… nearly everything about this show is incredibly good.”

Backed by what appears to be an unlimited budget, the show is one of the biggest spectacles to land in San Francisco in several years. The capacious Golden Gate is its ideal venue. The show is an absolute extravaganza, from stunning backdrops, costumes, and sets to the supreme talents of a huge cast, including Lewis J. Stadlen as Horace Vandergelder, the wealthy merchant and target of Dolly’s matrimonial intentions. Among the secondary cast, Nic Rouleau is a standout as the lovelorn Cornelius Hackl, one of Vandergelden’s underpaid and underappreciated employees.

Partial ensemble (Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes)

As townspeople, waiters, and other characters, approximately 30 performers do everything from simple walk-on bits to astoundingly athletic dance numbers—all of it appearing nearly effortless, and the show moves along with grace, precision, and enormous energy. There are no weak links in this production—in fact, the only weak link, and it’s a stretch to say this, may be Ms. Buckley herself, because nearly everything about this show is incredibly good. If she’s the weak link, it’s a strong, supple one.

“Hello, Dolly!” is a lightweight musical set around the turn of the 19th century, with some great songs in mid-20th century style—not merely the title song, but others including the heart-rending “Before the Parade Passes By.” Adhering to a time-honored plot device of the matrimonially-minded seeking partners with money, the show has been unfairly criticized for lacking relevance to modern audiences—sold-out performances at the thousand-seat Golden Gate to the contrary. If you have a hankering for a classic Broadway musical the way it was intended to be seen, this is the show for you.

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.

 

ProductionHello, Dolly!
Written byBook by Michael Stewart, Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
Directed byJerry Zaks
Producing CompanyNational Touring Production
Production DatesThrough March 17th
Production AddressGolden Gate Theatre
1 Taylor Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.shnsf.com
Telephone(888) 746-1799
Tickets$56 – $256
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Stunning “After Miss Julie” at Main Stage West – by Barry Willis

Trouble brews as a flighty heiress cavorts with her head servant in “After Miss Julie,” Patrick Marber’s adaptation of the August Strindberg classic, at Main Stage West through March 3.

Reset in an English country manor at the close of World War II, with the Labor Party about to win the national election and disrupt traditional social structures, the play features Jennifer Coté as Christine, a loyal scullery maid; Sam Coughlin as John, her fiancé and the manor’s head servant; and Ilana Niernberger as Miss Julie, the heiress who can’t resist defying class restrictions by seducing him. All the action plays out in the manor’s cramped downstairs kitchen, while a wild celebration swirls about outside.

Jointly directed by Elizabeth Craven and David Lear, who also did the set design, this brilliantly staged and performed piece is the antidote to the poison that is Strindberg’s much-praised “Creditors,” extended to March 3 at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. Both plays were written in 1888, and both are about the power dynamic inherent in sexual triangles—strong superficial resemblances, but “After Miss Julie” actually has uplifting moments and an ambiguous ending that proves to be far more nuanced and far more satisfying than the abrupt finality of “Creditors.”

…a stunning, perfectly paced pas de deux… that will keep you on edge right to the end…”

Coughlin and Niernberger (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Coté is excellent in her role as the determined, hard-working Christine, while Coughlin and Niernberger are astounding in their portrayal of a pair of hopelessly attracted lovers deep in the throes of an intractable dominant/submissive relationship. Julie relishes lording it over John, issuing orders that as her lover and employee he must obey. She then immediately demands that he issue orders to her in return and he complies, despite knowing how wrong it all is. With class distinctions amplified by differences in dialect, it’s a stunning, perfectly paced pas de deux—quite literally, with white-hot choreography by Dana Seghesio—that will keep you on edge right to the end, and will give you plenty to ponder for days after.

Sound designer Matthew Eben Jones has selected some wonderful music from the WWII era that perfectly establishes the play’s time frame, and Missy Weaver’s moody subdued lighting works marvelously to reinforce every scene. Running time is about 90 minutes. Opening night featured a short intermission; it wasn’t clear if MSW would keep it or not for the duration of the show. In either case it’s a fantastically good production, among the best in a series of superb productions by Sebastopol’s quirky troupe. In its few short years, Main Stage West has become one of the North Bay’s leading theatre companies. “After Miss Julie” proves why.

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.

 

ProductionAfter Miss Julie
Written byPatrick Marber
Directed byElizabeth Craven and David Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough March 3rd
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
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: Unpleasant “Creditors” at Aurora Theatre Company – by Barry Willis

Nothing kills one’s ardor more quickly than hearing this from a partner: “We have to talk.”

That pretty much sums up this reviewer’s take on August Strindberg’s “Creditors,” at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company through February 24. Written in 1888, the then-scandalous play examines the relationships of two men, Adolph and Gustav (Joseph Patrick O’Malley and Jonathan Rhys Williams, respectively) and one woman, Tekla (Rebecca Dines). Adolph is a self-doubting artist with unspecified neurological problems that manifest in spastic mannerisms and ambulatory difficulties. Gustav is a new friend talking him through an artistic identity crisis—should he pursue painting or sculpture?—while  fanning the flames of doubt in him about his wife Tekla, who as we discover later, is Gustav’s ex-wife.

The initial exchange between the two men goes on for maybe twenty minutes—it feels like hours of manipulative psychobabble—until at some point Tekla appears, an independent, free-spirited novelist who has published a book with a central character based on Gustav. She’s been gone a week, approximately as long as Gustav has known Adolph, and has come back to flirt with her own husband while her ex lurks unseen to hear everything they say. There is nothing about the two men that is at all appealing—Adolph is a cringing neurotic and Gustav, a master schemer. It’s hard to imagine what attracts Tekla to either of them. It isn’t money, despite the play’s title.

…the actors are excellent playing despicable characters…”

Joseph Patrick O’Malley and Rebecca Dines

Tekla is the prototype of a new kind of woman emerging in Western culture at the time—assertive, confident, uninhibited. She can entertain the concept of loving more than one person while the two men cannot. (Strindberg must have thought his character was unique; he accused Henrik Ibsen of plagiarism in making Hedda Gabler a similar type. Certainly Tekla and Hedda cannot have been the only free-spirited women in fin de siècle Scandinavia.) Tekla flirts and spars with Adolph until he leaves in a huff, whereupon Gustav enters and attempts a seduction. Tekla almost takes the bait then thinks better of it, and to cut to the chase, Adolph comes back in and dies of an epileptic seizure. That’s a wrap.

In the week since it opened, “Creditors” has been gushed about by a score of critics, many of whom, it must be assumed, are classicists. And while it’s always unfair to judge the art of the past through the lens of the present, it’s nearly impossible to see what’s so gush-worthy. The story is horrible, but directed by Barbara Damashek, the actors are excellent playing despicable characters—two men suffering from terminal cases of emotional hemorrhoids, and a woman who can’t be trusted. It’s ninety minutes of late 19th century European navel-gazing, a repellent talkathon in which almost nothing happens other than the malicious destruction of the weakest character.

The fact that something is old doesn’t make it valuable or worth reviving. As David Foster Wallace put it in another context, this play is “a supposedly fun thing I will never do again.”

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.

 

ProductionCreditors
Written byAugust Strindberg
Directed byBarbara Damashek
Producing CompanyAurora Theatre Co.
Production DatesThrough February 24th
Production AddressAurora Theatre Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone(510) 843-4822
Tickets$49
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script2/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! A Solid “Streetcar Named Desire” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” is among the most popular recurring productions in regional theater, with a couple of bucket-list roles for ambitious actors: the loutish Stanley Kowalski and his wilting-flower sister-in-law Blanche DuBois. The current revival of this favorite play runs in the studio theater at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa through February 17.

Directed by Phoebe Moyer, Ariel Zuckerman and Juliet Noonan do justice to these difficult parts, aided by superb supporting performances from Melissa Claire as Blanche’s pregnant sister Stella, and Edward McCloud as Mitch, Stanley’s bowling-and-poker pal who falls under Blanche’s spell. With a consistently bland mid-south accent and palpable emotional tenderness, Claire is rock-solid as the long-suffering sister, moving from joy at being reunited with Blanche to despair at having to get her removed from the cramped flat she shares with Stanley. McCloud also has a complicated path to traverse as Stanley’s army buddy who asserts himself enough to pursue Blanche, only to have his hopes dashed by plausible tales about her scandalous behavior back in Laurel, Mississippi.

…compelling heat—just right for a cold February night.”

Zuckerman and Noonan (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Zuckerman apparently relishes his part as the savage Stanley, and in many scenes seems to be channeling Marlon Brando, whose portrayal of Stanley in the film version has forever affected those who followed. Zuckerman even looks like the young Brando, and some of his postures are eerily like the film actor’s. He’s also in great athletic shape, much more impressive than Brando in his youth.

Juliet Noonan has the unenviable task of carrying the bulk of the drama—like Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Blanche DuBois is among the most demanding roles in 20th century American theater, perhaps the female equivalent of Hamlet, and Noonan gets it about ninety percent right. Her physical gestures are evocative, and her timing excellent, but she falls in and out of her Mississippi plantation accent. With moments of true pathos, she beautifully conveys Blanche’s self-delusion and persistent manipulation of those around her.

Matt Farrell and Laura Downing-Lee are very good as Steve and Eunice, who live upstairs from Stella and Stanley and provide Stella with comfort when Stanley rages. A full-size spiral staircase leads to their unseen apartment, an amazing bit of set design in 6th Street’s compact studio theater. While not the best production this reviewer has seen, this “Streetcar” generates plenty of compelling heat—just right for a cold February night.

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.

 

ProductionA Streetcar Named Desire
Written byTennessee Williams
Directed byPhoebe Moyer
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough February 17th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
Studio Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$18 – $28
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Sex with Strangers” Turns Up the Heat at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

How do you define success, and what would you sacrifice to achieve it? Would you be willing to take advantage of others? To trade in your dignity, your privacy, or even your identity? Would you dare to risk a shot at love?

Pondering the price of fame in the digital era, “Sex with Strangers” is the smart, seductive modern romance by Emmy Award-winning House of Cards writer Laura Eason, playing now through February 17th at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre.

Olivia (Sandra Ish) has faded into obscurity following the long-ago release of her modestly successful novel. Badly bruised by mixed reviews and fearing public scrutiny, she continues to write but shares her work with no one. Now in her late thirties, Olivia has settled for a teaching job and relegated writing to a hobby.

Ethan (Dean Linnard) is an up-and-coming writer who, at only 28, has already made a splash on the New York Times Best Seller list and amassed a sizeable following online. Having leveraged his controversial blog about casual sex into two books and an impending movie deal, Ethan’s fame and fortune are on an upward trajectory. Even so, he is restless to escape his reputation as philandering lothario and rebrand himself as a serious author.

Linnard and Ish (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

When a snowstorm leaves these strangers stranded and alone at a remote bed-and-breakfast, sparks fly as flirtatious tension escalates into a passionate affair. But we soon learn their chance encounter wasn’t chance at all, and when Ethan offers to help relaunch Olivia’s career, there is ample room to doubt his motives. Olivia, we learn, has ambitions of her own, and we are left to question who is using whom. Or could this be a genuine connection?

…a steamy, entertaining story full of laugh-out-loud moments…”

Anticipation is half the fun, and the opening scenes are butterfly-inducing as heat and momentum build between Olivia and Ethan. Their banter appears unrehearsed – the pair’s interactions feel alluringly natural, raw, and resultantly real. Eason’s dialogue is sharp and delightfully fast-paced, and these two pros deliver it with ease.

Linnard’s Ethan is irresistibly charming. His coarse manners and frank confidence are at once repulsive and magnetic. There’s a sweet sincerity in his affection for Olivia that helps sustain our hope in the honesty of his intentions, despite the reasons we are given to suspect he can’t be trusted. Ish is equally excellent as voluptuous Olivia, bringing a compelling blend of vulnerability, sass, and surprising strength to the role.

Ish and Linnard (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

The unlikelihood of their pairing makes their romance all the more interesting to watch unfold. What might have been a modest age difference in decades past is now a significant gap made ever broader by the rapid technological advancements we’ve seen in the last twenty years. Ethan’s Wi-Fi dependent world is ruled by an ever-ringing cell phone, overflowing email inbox, and constant public exposure. Olivia’s world – at least when we first meet her – is significantly more quiet. She’s still a fan, after all, of things like privacy and hard copy books.

A subtle power shift occurs as Olivia’s star begins to rise and Ethan’s fades, culminating in a simple, striking moment when the scene is interrupted by a ringing phone. We expect to see Ethan reach into his pocket. But this time, much to our surprise, the call is for Olivia. (Kudos to Sound Designer Joe Winkler for this and other well-timed effects.)

Eason’s ending is powerful and poignant, leaving the door open for us to reflect on what we hope will happen after the curtain falls. We are at once indulged but also wanting more.

Under Diane Bailey’s direction, Linnard and Ish hit it out of the park. Light Designer April George creates a convincing blizzard outside the opening scene’s window, and Argo Thompson’s set provides an attractive and believable backdrop, converting cleanly from a cozy bed-and-breakfast to an urban apartment.

“Sex with Strangers” is a steamy, entertaining story full of laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of food for serious thought. Leave the kids at home, check your inhibitions at the door, and strap in for a night of fun you won’t regret the morning after.

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

 

ProductionSex with Strangers
Written byLaura Eason
Directed byDiane Bailey
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough February 17th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid” – by Victor Cordell

For anyone who has been diagnosed with a fatal disease, the period leading to death can be painful and profound. If one can carry out normal activities under the sentence of death, the person often makes a conscious decision whether to live as routinely as possible; whether to surround one’s self with what is most cherished; or whether to splurge on very special and perhaps extravagant experiences.

In any case, philosophical reflection is inevitable. But what if one knows that life will end for all of humanity at a prescribed time? Say, an asteroid large enough to obliterate life hurtles inexorably toward earth.

In Jeffrey Lo’s new comic farce, Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid, a prophet of doom named Alfred Winters had accurately predicted “The Vanishing” in which half of humanity recently disappeared at once without a trace. Now Winters has assured those who have survived that the world will end at midnight on the day that the action of the play takes place. By the way, for those like me who have trouble deciphering the title, you probably don’t know that “OK Cupid” is an online dating site. Now it should make sense.

The narrative centers on two couples and several other characters whose lives intersect. Each couple has just met on the fateful day through OK Cupid, which should suggest that the characters are not exactly Homecoming King and Queen material. These young adults, as couples and with others, go through relationship rituals and the memes of daily life – from hypnotically gazing into cell phones to confronting the condescending barista at the coffee shop over a $20 cuppa.

…in the notable words of Caitlyn, “Before we learn to die, should we learn to live?”

Although some aspects of the play are universal, many themes and characters will speak more effectively to a younger audience. Millennials (and stoners?) may find the comedy-club and sketch-type humor funny throughout, but much of it seems strained, even though the actors animate the dialogue as well as can be expected. Humor in the script needs to be fine-tuned, and strands need to be tightened, as some of the segments never connect well with the overall arc. In fact, the funniest segment, a Scotsman, played by Flip Hofman, who reveals his OK Cupid self-summary and six things he can’t live without, fails to integrate at all.

Tasi Alabastro as the hyperkinetic Ben and Michelle Skinner as the depressive Caitlyn bring energy to the lead roles and are effective overall, while Keith Larson seems at risk of blowing out his carotid artery from his frenzied depiction of Winters. At the other extreme, Michael Weiland seems totally natural as the relaxed Bong, and in a small bit, Tyler Pardini nails it as the low affect open-mic, poetry emcee.

The staging suits the vignette-driven nature of the story. Open staircases, platforms, and catwalks comprise Paulo Deleal’s set, with the occasional addition of cafe tables and chairs. Director Michael Champlin aptly isolates scenes on the stage, and actors who are not performing can comfortably hang out in other locations (and fiddle on their cell phones!). Megan Souther’s lighting complements the overall effect. Generally, low lighting is supported by spots and mobile area highlights. Cell phones are particularly effective for facial illumination.

The driving motives of the play are strong. Although the situations are intimate and farcical, existential matters are broached. What is the point of life and why do things remain important to us once we know the end is imminent? Yet, in the notable words of Caitlyn, “Before we learn to die, should we learn to live?”

Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid by Jeffrey Lo is produced by Pear Theatre and plays at its stage at 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View, CA through February 17, 2019.

ASR reviewer Victor Cordell is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association, and a Theatre Bay Area adjudicator.

 

 

 

ProductionSpending the End of the World on OK Cupid
Written byJeffrey Lo
Directed byMichael Champlin
Producing CompanyPear Theater
Production DatesThru Feb. 17th
Production AddressPear Theater
1110 La Avenida St.
Suite A
Mountain View, CA 94043
Websitewww.thepear.org
Telephone650.254.1148
Tickets$28-$32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall
Performance
Script
Stagecraft
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Poignant, Poetic “Swallow” at Main Stage West – by Nicole Singley

At Sebastopol’s Main Stage West through January 27th, “Swallow” is a lyrical and haunting reflection on how we put our pieces back together and rebuild – our wounds, our relationships, our sense of purpose and of self – through the healing conduit of shared suffering and human connection.

Rebecca (Michelle Maxson) is alone and angry. Her husband has fallen in love with another woman. She takes the pain out on herself and fears her scars may never heal. Meanwhile, upstairs neighbor Anna (Dana Scott Seghesio) hasn’t left her apartment in months and is tearing it apart piece by piece, living on ice cubes and canned beans in total isolation. When the two begin to talk through Anna’s closed door, their fragile, faceless friendship evolves into an unusual but much-needed lifeline.

Sam (Skyler Cooper) is in the process of becoming the man he feels himself to be, enduring the humiliation of a job at which he is still called Samantha and struggling to gain confidence and acceptance in his new identity. Recognizing his own loneliness in Rebecca when he discovers her sitting by herself at a coffee shop, Sam takes a chance and starts a conversation.

Cast members Cooper, Maxson, and Seghesio at work.

Although she is initially wary, Rebecca begins to let her walls down as she reopens herself to the possibility of finding new love and understanding. But how will she react if Sam comes clean about his past? What unfolds is both dark and uplifting, at moments comical and others crushing.

The chemistry between Sam and Rebecca is real and their relationship utterly compelling. Cooper and Maxson are immensely talented and profoundly well-cast. It is hard to look away from them, even when their interactions pause and the spotlight shifts to Anna in her apartment. In those dark, unmoving moments, the expressions on their faces speak volumes.

…shattered mirrors, broken hearts, fractured bones, and splintered identities…

Scott Seghesio does an admirable job in a difficult role, making Anna about as interesting as she can be given the lack of development her backstory is offered by playwright Stef Smith. It is hard to care as much as we might like to about a cripplingly neurotic person we learn little about beyond her strange obsession with destruction and strained relationship with a brother who pays her rent. The result is that her scenes begin to feel like unwelcome interruptions to the story we’re more emotionally invested in. Anna’s overwrought metaphorical ramblings about an injured bird become at times torturous as we wait to see more of Rebecca and Sam.

With John Craven’s assistance, David Lear has crafted a lean, effective set which succeeds in creating the illusion of a coffee shop, an apartment building, and a city sidewalk without undergoing any major changes. Missy Weaver’s light design helps create a sense of separation between rooms and scenes. The sound effects of shattering glass and hammers pounding are well-timed and appropriately jarring thanks to Matthew E. Jones’s design.

Despite its imperfections, “Swallow” is inarguably moving, and Smith’s compassion for human suffering is evident. She reminds us that we are capable of creating beautiful things from our broken pieces and that no matter how personal or private our battles, we are never really alone in our pain. Main Stage West has handled her material with care, and the result is well worth watching.

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

 

ProductionSwallow
Written byStef Smith
Directed byMissy Weaver
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough January 27th
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
Performance4.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AISLE SEAT REVIEW’S THEATRE FAVORITES 2018 — by Barry Willis and Nicole Singley

In 2018, Aisle Seat Review critics attended more than 100 productions, most very good and many, excellent. Rather than compile a “Best of” list—always a subjective evaluation open to rancorous discussion—we thought it might be more fun to share some favorites, in no particular order:

“Always, Patsy Cline” Sonoma Arts Live, Sonoma. Danielle DeBow brought the legendary country singer to life—and more—in this wonderful “jukebox musical” about Cline and her friend Louise Seger, emphatically played by Karen Pinomaki. Excellent male backup singers and onstage band sealed the deal for this Michael Ross production, which could have played all summer to packed houses.

“Always Patsy Cline” cast at Sonoma Arts Live.

 

“Oslo” Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley. Director Jasson Minidakis got amazing performances from a large cast in this West Coast premiere of J.T. Rogers’s Tony Award-winning drama, a fictionalized account of backstage negotiations conducted by unauthorized Norwegian diplomats that resulted in the 1993 peace accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

“An “Entomologist’s Love Story,” San Francisco Playhouse. Directed by Giovanna Sardelli, this funny and sweetly seductive tale of love and rejection between a couple of graduate researchers took several unexpected but delightful detours on its way to providing insight into the mating behaviors of young adult humans. The award-worthy set was among many created by Nina Ball, one of the Bay Area’s most gifted designers.

“Entomologist’s Love Story,” at San Francisco Playhouse.

 

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Rohnert Park. This North Bay all-star production about an autistic kid searching for his mother was special in many respects, including set design and ensemble work. As Christopher, Elijah Pinkham was tremendous in his first big-venue outing, directed by Elizabeth Craven.

“Head over Heels,” Curran, San Francisco. Perhaps the most fun show of the year—and the most unjustifiably maligned—this pseudo-Shakespearean spoof featured incredible performances, amazing set design/stagecraft, and the best-ever treatment of the music of ‘80s pop group The Go-Go’s.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” Ray of Light Theatre, San Francisco. The best rock musical ever conceived was given a spectacular treatment in the Mission District’s crusty old Victoria Theatre. Coleton Schmitto slayed as the transgendered rock star, matched in gravitas if not in flamboyance by Maya Michal Sherer as Hedwig’s lover/assistant Yitzhak.

“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” at Ray of Light Theatre, San Francisco.

 

“By the Water,” Spreckels Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Rohnert Park. This heart-rending tale of a family and neighborhood trying to cope with the aftermath of a natural disaster had special meaning for North Bay residents following last year’s devastating fires. Mike Pavone and Mary Gannon Graham were superb as husband and wife trying to find their way home, in a sensitive production helmed by Carl Jordan.

“The House of Yes,” Main Stage West, Sebastopol. Director and set designer Elizabeth Craven pulled some dark magic from her bag of tricks in this stunning presentation of Wendy MacLeod’s horrifically funny portrait of an incredibly dysfunctional upper-crust family. Sharia Pierce was astounding as the Pascal family’s whacked-out “Jackie O” while Laura Jorgensen induced chills as her hard-drinking mother.

“The House of Yes” at Main Stage West.

 

“Death of a Salesman,” Novato Theatre Company, Novato. Arthur Miller’s classic depiction of a salesman put out to pasture could not have been more heartbreaking or more beautiful than as directed by Carl Jordan. Joe Winkler was perfectly cast as down-on-his-luck Willy Loman, as was Richard Kerrigan in the role of Charlie, Willy’s neighbor and best friend.

“Dry Powder,” Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley. Aldo Billingsly starred as a hard-charging buyout artist in this incisive dark comedy about the often impenetrable world of private equity. Emily Jeanne Brown was rock-solid as the unfeeling, number-crunching junior partner Emily. Directed with aplomb by Jennifer King.

“Detroit ’67,” Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley. Dominique Morisseau’s fictional but totally plausible tale of ordinary people struggling to get ahead during Detroit’s riots and fires of 1967 was beautifully conveyed in this five-actor tour-de-force directed by Darryl V. Jones, with standout performances by Halili Knox and Rafael Jordan as sister and brother Chelle and Lank.

“Detroit ’67” at Aurora Theater Co.

 

“A Walk on the Moon,” ACT, San Francisco. Performances and stagecraft were—pardon us, please—over the moon in this spectacular presentation of a simple story about a young wife’s coming-of-age during the summer when astronauts first landed on the moon.

 

“Hand to God,” Left Edge Theatre, Santa Rosa. Laughter flowed and doll heads rolled in this no-holds-barred dark comedy about a shy young Christian boy with a hand puppet, “Tyrone,” possessed by the devil. (Set in Texas. Where else?) A series of increasingly outrageous events culminated in the hostile takeover of a church basement, topped off by an absurdly funny and obscene act of puppetry that will haunt us for years to come. Dean Linnard’s impressive turn as Jason-slash-Tyrone and set design by Argo Thompson made for some devilish good fun.

“The Realistic Joneses,” Left Edge Theatre, Santa Rosa. Two couples shared an ordinary last name and an extraordinary fate in Will Eno’s poignant and darkly hilarious exploration of human connection, coping mechanisms, marriage and mortality. Melissa Claire, Chris Ginesi, Paige Picard, and Chris Schloemp brought remarkable talent and palpable chemistry to the stage, making an already interesting story unforgettable.

“Disgraced,” Left Edge Theatre, Santa Rosa. Issues of cultural appropriation, religion, racial tension, and infidelity came to an explosive head at a dinner party-gone-wrong in Ayad Akhtar’s incisive Pulitzer Prize-winning drama. Left Edge’s top-notch casting, set design and technical work were—forgive us—anything but disgraceful.

“Tinderella,” Custom Made Theatre, San Francisco. A world premiere, this clever, inventive musical put an inspired spin on an age-old classic, thrusting beloved Disney princess Cinderella into the harsh realities of 21st-century online dating. Replete with hilarious song lyrics and cultural references, the script offers surprisingly heartfelt reflections on fostering love and friendship in a modern-day landscape of social media and smartphone apps. This wildly entertaining show attracted a remarkably young audience with a story acutely relevant to millennials and Bay Area living, poking plenty of fun at our ongoing reliance on all things digital, and helped along by some seriously good singing and outrageously funny choreography.

“Blackbird,” Main Stage West, Sebastopol. An inescapable past came back to haunt an industrial production manager in David Harrower’s “Blackbird.” Sharia Pierce astounded as Una, a young woman who hunts down her former and much older lover Ray (John Shillington). David Lear’s direction and set design were beyond perfect in this chilling piece about irresistible but doomed attraction.

“Marjorie Prime,” at Marin Theatre Company, Mill Valley. Humanoid artificial intelligence got a new twist as therapeutic tools in Jordan Harrison’s 2015 Pulitzer Prize contender. Set in the near future, the provocative one-act was superbly delivered by four supremely talented actors—particularly Joy Carlin as the faltering widow—directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, on a simple modernistic set by Kimie Nishikawa.

“Marjorie Prime” at Marin Theatre Company.

 

 

ASR reviewer Nicole Singley is a member of the Marquee Theatre Journalists Association and the American Theatre Critics Association.

 

 

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

 

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Templeton’s Sweet “Polar Bears” a Must-see Christmas Show – by Barry Willis

This time of year, we are inundated with multiple choices of winter holiday-theme productions. There are at least several presentations of “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Carol,” not to mention marathon broadcasts of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Story”—all worthy, heartwarming ways to enrich the season.

Add to this list David Templeton’s “Polar Bears,” one man’s tale about how far he was willing to go to extend his children’s belief in Santa Claus in the wake of their mother’s death. Performed by veteran actor Chris Schloemp, this “true story about a very big lie” is a lovely mix of tragedy, comedy, and detached self-deprecating observation that will keep you enthralled throughout its approximately 90 minutes.

Prolific journalist, critic, and playwright Templeton is a North Bay treasure, with several productions to his credit in addition to his annual “Twisted Christmas,” a grab-bag of performances and stories that played recently to a nearly full house at Spreckels Performing Arts Center. Templeton’s style is similar to Jean Shepherd, the great chronicler of Americana whose 1966 book “In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash” included the basis of “A Christmas Story.”

…’Polar Bears’… will keep you enthralled…

Templeton directs Schloemp on a set of stored Christmas paraphernalia, much of it cleverly doing double- or triple-duty to illustrate the piece. Easing your children out of treasured fantasies can be an ordeal for any parent. As told by Templeton and Schloemp, it’s also a sweet expression of love.

“Polar Bears” completes its run at the Belrose Theatre in San Rafael December 15, and will be reprised in a one-night-only performance at Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa, Sunday December 23, at 7:00 p.m.

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

ProductionPolar Bears
Written byDavid Templeton
Directed byDavid Templeton
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theater Co.
Production DatesSunday, December 23, 2018 7:00 p.m.
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone707-546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “Dear Evan Hansen” a Millennial Spectacle at the Curran – by Barry Willis

Multiple Tony Award winner “Dear Evan Hansen” has finally landed in San Francisco, after a legal tussle between the Curran’s Carole Shorenstein Hays and her former partners The Nederlander Organization. Much-anticipated, the show lives up to its reputation, with excellent performances and stunning stagecraft that make this first Millennial musical an immersive experience.

At its core a simple story about a withdrawn, socially inept high-school boy (Ben Levi Ross, most performances) whose gift for writing has good and bad repercussions, the show is also about family relations—the lead character lives with his single mom Heidi (Jerssica Phillips), who works tirelessly to improve herself and the life of her son, while having little time to interact with him.

It’s also about the intensity of life lived via social media as experienced by young people. Covering the entire stage for much of the show’s two-and-a-half hours, Peter Nigrini’s astounding projections go a long way toward conveying just how intense, immediate, and all-consuming such life can be. The music—also award-winning—is brash, loud, and louder, with only a couple of tender moments. Most of the songs in the first act are shouted more than sung.

Evan Hansen’s distraught classmate Connor Murphy (Marrick Smith) mentions feeling suicidal and ultimately kills himself. Evan’s fictitious email exchanges with Connor gain notoriety and even provide some comfort for Connor’s parents Larry and Cynthia (Aaron Lazar and Christiane Noll) and sister Zoe (Maggie McKenna), who falls for Evan, if only briefly.

Phoebe Koyabe does a fine job as Alana Beck, one of Evan’s classmates and a self-appointed busybody who both encourages his subterfuge and later exposes it. Jared Goldsmith appears as Jared Kleinman, an obnoxious classmate and possibly Evan’s only friend.

…the extraordinary level of stagecraft supporting it make ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ quite a justifiable ticket purchase…

The show’s production values are exceptional, but in style it bears a striking resemblance to “Next to Normal,” possibly the worst musical ever conceived. The resemblance is no accident; both shows were helmed by Micheal Greif. Stripped of its glitz, the story would make ideal material for a Hallmark or Lifetime made-for-TV movie.

There are two moments that could use a rewrite: one is the scene where Larry, in surrogate father mode, shows Evan how to break in a baseball glove, something that in a film would be conveyed with a couple of soft-focus shots, but here it demands an entire song (“To Break in a Glove”). The other false moment comes when Larry and Cynthia attempt to befriend Evan’s mother, offering to fund his college education with money they have saved for Connor’s. Instead of being appreciative, Heidi gets incensed and insists that he’ll go to community college until she can afford to send him someplace better.

It’s mostly an exercise in psychological torture for poor Evan, but his misguided efforts—aided by Alana and Zoe—have an unpredictable and somewhat upbeat payoff, even if it isn’t happy-ever-after. “Dear Evan Hansen” is an emotionally exhausting production—not necessarily for the audience, but certainly for the performers, with nine shows per week. Their commitment to the show and the extraordinary level of stagecraft supporting it make “Dear Evan Hansen” quite a justifiable ticket purchase.

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

 

Production“Dear Evan Hansen”
Written byWritten by Steven Levenson,

Music and Lyrics by Benj Pakek and Justin Paul
Directed byMichael Greif
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesDecember 30th
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$99 – $325
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?------

 

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

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

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

“Annie” will always be a relevant show…

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ProductionMoon Over Buffalo
Written byKen Ludwig
Directed byCarl Jordan
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough Feb 3rd
Production AddressSixth Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$20 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK? --------

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

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

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

Everything about this production is perfection…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

*** AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK *** High-Energy “Crazy for You” at San Francisco’s Alcazar by Barry Willis

Bay Area Musicals has opened its fourth season with a tremendously energetic production of “Crazy for You” at the beautiful Alcazar Theatre in San Francisco, through December 16.

On a stunningly versatile set by Kuo-Hao Lo, the Ken Ludwig/Mike Ockrent reworking of the Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney song-and-dance film “Girl Crazy” features music by George and Ira Gershwin, including many tunes that long ago entered the Great American Songbook as pop and jazz standards: “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Embraceable You,” “I Got Rhythm,” “Naughty Baby,” “They Can’t Take That Away from Me,” and “Nice Work if You Can Get It”—all backed by a superb seven-piece backstage band.

It’s all good fun in this quick-paced two-hour musical, with ensemble work that borders on astounding.

The setup is a classic boy-meets-girl scenario in which Bobby, the boy, (Conor DeVoe) avoids his wealthy but overbearing fiancé Irene (Morgan Peters) by leaving New York on his mother’s orders to take over a defunct theater in a small Nevada town. There he meets Polly (Danielle Altizio), the toughest gal in the West, and the daughter of the theater’s owner. Subverting his mother’s wishes, they hatch a plan to revive the theater, leveraging the hitherto untapped talents of the local layabouts as well as a bevy of dancing girls from the Zangler Follies, who miraculously descend on the town in time to put on a spectacular show. The storyline includes more happenstance love affairs than a Shakespearean comedy, at least one protracted bit of mistaken identity, and a happy-ever-after ending.

The cast of “Crazy for You” at work, Alcazar Theater, San Francisco.

It’s all good fun in this quick-paced two-hour musical, with ensemble work that borders on astounding. There’s some fine comic acting and plenty of great dancing, especially an abundance of tap (choreography by Matthew McCoy and Danielle Cheiken, who include much of Susan Stroman’s Broadway original). The performers’ singing isn’t quite up to their high level of dancing, but with the backing of a great band it’s adequate to keep the show rolling along while doing justice to the Gershwins’ marvelous music.

The renovated structure housing the Alcazar is a star in its own right, with an ornate exterior that belies the austerity of a simple white interior festooned with modern and contemporary art. It’s as if the theater resides inside an upscale gallery. Art fans and those with an eye for interior design will be as smitten with the Alcazar as ticketholders will be with “Crazy for You.” It’s a real crowd pleaser.

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.

 

ProductionCrazy for You
Written byMusic and Lyrics by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin

Book by Ken Ludwig
Directed byMatthew McCoy
Producing CompanyBay Area Musicals
Production DatesThru December 16th
Production AddressAlcazar Theatre
650 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.bamsf.org
Telephone415-340-2207
Tickets$35-$65
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

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

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

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

Dani Innocenti-Beem at work as Dolly.

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

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

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

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

The cast of “Hello Dolly” at work.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Production“How I Learned What I Learned”
Written byBy August Wilson
Directed byDirected by Margo Hall
Producing CompanyMarin Theater Company (MTC)
Production DatesThru Feb 3rd.
Production AddressMarin Theater Co.
397 Miller Ave.
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone415.388.5200
Tickets$25 – $70
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! Sweet, Evocative “Detroit ‘67” at Aurora Theatre – by Barry Willis

Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company has yet another winner on its hands with playwright Dominique Morisseau’s “Detroit ’67,” extended through October 7.

A sad, sweet, and thought-provoking story set in Detroit during the riots and fires that engulfed that city in 1967, the Darryl V. Jones-directed play centers on sister and brother Chelle and Lank (Halili Knox and Rafael Jordan, respectively), who share a home left to them by hard-working parents.

As a way of earning extra money, they host dance parties in their basement, beautifully realized by scenic designer Richard Olmstead. The entire affair plays out in this basement, but the turmoil outside is almost constantly apparent. Much to Chelle’s annoyance, Lank has bigger plans than neighborhood parties. He wants to buy a bar in partnership with his friend Sly (Myers Clark), a desire thwarted at every turn by missed opportunities, bureaucratic obstacles, and brutal police. Chelle’s friend Bunny (Akilah A. Walker) spends plenty of time hanging out in the basement, dancing, flirting, and offering acerbic commentary on everything that transpires.

This perfectly-paced show is an exemplar of superb ensemble work…

Into the mix comes Caroline (Emily Radosevich), a white girl found wandering in the streets by Lank and Sly. She’s suffered a beating, and they let her recover in the basement, but her presence during incendiary racial circumstances raises the danger for all of them. Over the course of a few days, Chelle and Lank work to resolve their differences, Lank and Sly almost succeed with their business plan, and Caroline more-or-less recovers. The beautiful and flirtatious Bunny doesn’t contribute much to the advancement of the plot, but instead serves as an audience point-of-view character who anchors every scene she’s in.

From left, Halili Knox, Myers Clark, Emily Radosevich, Rafael Jordan and Akilah A.Walker at work in “Detroit ’67”

“Detroit ‘67” has been unfairly criticized for lacking original plot elements. To that, one might counter that there are precious few original plots—in fact, some script gurus insist that there are only a handful. Certainly, there’s plenty of familiarity in sibling disagreement and in two guys trying to start a business under adverse circumstances.

While the script could use a judicious edit, it’s totally believable, and gorgeously presented. This perfectly-paced show is an exemplar of superb ensemble work, plus some astounding sound design by Cliff Caruthers. There are moments of heartbreaking beauty—in particular, the closing scene where Chelle dances to a favorite Motown hit as the lights slowly fade. Live drama doesn’t get any more evocative than that.

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.

 

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

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

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

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

…this “Hedwig” is refreshingly street-funky…

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

“Hedwig” with Coleton Schmitto.

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Demos Kratos Theatro cast.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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!

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

The cast at work in “All My Sons”

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

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

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

Joe Keller as played by Christian Phillips

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

ProductionThe Tasting Room
Written byBarry Martin
Directed byBarry Martin
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough August 12th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$22-$32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

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

“A Walk on the Moon” at ACT

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

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

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

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

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

Pearl and Walker – Katie Brayben and Zak Resnick at ACT

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

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

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

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

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer: Barry Willis

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Tickets: $15 – $110

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

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

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

SF Playhouse: An Entomologist’s Love Story

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

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

SF Playhouse: Lucas Verbrugghe and Lori Prince

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

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

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

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

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

 

“An Entomologist’s Love Story”

San Francisco Playhouse

Through June 23, 2018

420 Post Street, San Francisco

(Second floor of the Kensington Hotel)

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

Rating: 4 1/2 Out of Five Stars

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

 

MTC: Marjorie Prime

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Marjorie Prime”

Marin Theatre Company  397 Miller Ave.  Mill Valley CA 94941

Through May 27, 2018

Tickets: $10 – $44

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

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

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ASR Theater Review! “Tinderella” Delights at Custom Made Theatre Co. – by Nicole Singley

Tinderella: Tinder Creeps

What if Cinderella were alive today, resigned to searching for her kale-munching, kombucha-swilling, flannel shirt-donning prince on an Internet dating app, adrift in a sea of creepy stalkers and unsolicited ‘dick pics?’

Running through May 26th at San Francisco’s Custom Made Theatre Co., modern musical “Tinderella” puts a wildly entertaining spin on an age-old classic, thrusting our beloved Disney princess into the harsh realities of 21st-century online dating. FaultLine Theater has partnered with Custom Made for the world premiere of a brilliant show three years in the making, attracting a remarkably young, enthusiastic audience with a story acutely relevant to millennials and Bay Area living, and poking plenty of fun at our newfound reliance on all things digital. (Boomers, be warned – some generational references may be lost in translation.)

Tinderella: Dylan & Meg

Once upon a time, (shortly after the release of the iPhone 5, but before the release of the iPhone 5C, we’re told), our princess Meg (Juliana Lustenader) naively yearns for the fairy-tale romance she grew up believing she was destined for. Her ordinary life feels inadequate when measured against the glamorous Facebook facades of her social media-savvy stepsisters, whose virtual personas exude the confidence and fulfillment Meg aspires to. But when gay fairy-god-roommate Dylan (the magnificent Branden Noel Thomas) introduces her to popular dating app Tinder, it seems as though her luck may be about to change. “If you’re straight, hot, and white,” he tells her, “Tinder is like magic, (more or less).”

Tinderella: Julie & Marcus

Meanwhile, in couples’ land, Julie (the exquisite Sarah Jiang) and Marcus (Jackson Thea) are at a crossroads. Marcus wants to settle down with Julie, move to Texas, buy a dog, and crank out a couple of kids. Julie, on the other hand, wants… well, she doesn’t exactly know yet, but she’s pretty sure it isn’t that. She urges him to take a step back and explore other options. Marcus does just that, inviting his new Tinder match Meg to a “super cool party” at his San Francisco apartment. Full of hope, Meg sets out to meet her prince, win his heart, and catch the last BART train back to Oakland before midnight. But in a world where success is measured in “likes” and love is found by “swiping right,” all bets for a happy ending are off.

The cellphone-toting ensemble is well balanced and superbly gifted, and vocal talent abounds. Thomas is dynamic, empathetic, and often hilarious as quesadilla-making, tough-loving Dylan, with a powerful voice and a flair for delivery. In lead roles, Thea and Lustenader are both convincing and cute and remain lovable despite lapses of self-centered blindness.

Tinderella: Selfies with Stepsisters

Adielyn Mendoza and Alex Akin are well cast as New York fashionista Allie and world-traveling, do-gooder Tanya (Meg’s not-so-evil stepsisters). Their excellent voices, though regrettably underutilized, are put to good use in “Picture Perfect” and “Reality Check,” calling out our obsession with ‘selfies’ and the false images of perfection we project online.

Jiang shines in a standout performance as undecided Julie, questioning whether she’s in the best place she can be (“The Best Place”) and ultimately helping lead us to one of the night’s most insightful revelations – that we are all sometimes guilty of forcing others to play a role in our own stories. It takes courage to shed our misguided fairy-tale notions and break free from the pressure to conform. “I’m not giving up on my dreams,” Julie explains to Marcus, “but I’m giving up on yours.” Jiang’s beautiful voice only accentuates her knack for acting and reacting to the other cast members throughout the show.

The production is punctuated by riotous, foot-tapping musical numbers like “Old School Chivalry,” “Slow Grind Love Song,” and “(You’re Gonna) F***ing Rock It.” Weston Scott’s lyrics are funny and sharp, pairing perfectly with Christian B. Schmidt’s hip, vibrant score. Meredith Joelle Charlson’s choreography adds much to the tear-inducing hilarity of lighter-hearted acts. The more solemn, introspective pieces are lovely, too, spotlighting some of the incredible voices on stage.

“Tinderella” is the sexy, hilarious, and highly enjoyable triumph of an immensely talented cast and creative team. You, too, may fall in love at first swipe.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

“Tinderella: The Modern Musical” by Rose Oser, Christian B. Schmidt, and Weston Scott, in partnership with FaultLine Theater

Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter St, San Francisco, CA 94102

Through May 26, 2018

Tickets: $25—$49

Info: (415) 798-2682, custommade.org

Recommended for mature audiences

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

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

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

 

Tartuffe at B8

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

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

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

Sacre bleu!

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

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

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

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Overall Score: 60/100. See this show.

 

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

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

RUN DATES
April 5 – 21, 2018

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

 

La Cage aux Folles at 6th Street

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

“La Cage aux Folles”

Directed by Russell Kaltschmidt

6th Street Playhouse

G.K. Hardt Theatre

52 W. 6th Street Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Tickets: $22 – $38

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

Rating:  Four out of Five Stars.

 

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

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

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

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

James Udom

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

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

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

Greg Wallace

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

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

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

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

 

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

Directed by Liz Diamond

American Conservatory Theater

Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street San Francisco

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

Rating: Three out of Five Stars

 

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ASR Theater Review! Refreshing “Water by the Spoonful” at Raven Performing Arts Theater – by Nicole Singley

Playing through May 13th at Healdsburg’s Raven Performing Arts Theater, Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful” is a complex and heartfelt exploration of poor choices and personal trauma, the difficult road to recovery, and the unlikely lifelines that help keep us afloat.

Elliot (Bill Garcia) is an Iraq War veteran and aspiring actor, reduced to making Subway sandwiches while caring for the ailing aunt who raised him. Carrying the scars of a troubled childhood and his time in Iraq, he is haunted by agonizing guilt, devastating loss, and the grudge he harbors against his mother. We gather shocking pieces of his past throughout the show. Garcia is believable as Elliot, and his energy is complemented by the talented Serena Elize Flores as cousin Yazmin.

Elliot’s mother Odessa (played effectively by Athena Gundlach) is a recovering crack addict who runs an Internet chat room for others battling addiction. “Haikumom,” as she’s known online, devotes the majority of her time to helping chat-room regulars “Orangutan” (Hande Gokbas) and “Chutes&Ladders” (Nicholas James Augusta) in their daily struggles to stay clean. Though largely isolated from her family and the outside world, Odessa finds redeeming purpose and connection in her virtual haven. But when Elliot comes home to confront the skeletons in his family’s closet, her fragile peace is threatened.

The performers are capable and well cast, and a few scenes into opening night, began to really find their groove. Matt Farrell feels natural in the role of self-centered chat-room newcomer “Fountainhead,” slowly coming to terms with the truth of his addiction. Gokbas is endearing as “Orangutan,” her passion and determination to move forward a much-needed boon to “Chutes&Ladders” as he wrestles with the fear of shaking up his safe routine. The evolution of their relationship from virtual to actual is both moving and uplifting.

A minimalistic set puts our focus on the actors and leaves much to the imagination. Clever projections illuminate to indicate when chat room members are online. The venue adds a fitting element of openness and vulnerability, enhancing the show’s emotional impact without keeping the audience at too great a distance.

Quiara Alegría Hudes has written a story about broken people, and the humanity with which she’s brought each character to life is evident under Steven David Martin’s compassionate direction. While the ending she has given us is not exactly happy, it is hopeful.

“Water by the Spoonful” challenges us to find the courage to face our own demons and the strength to do better. Redemption and atonement, it suggests, are made possible by the powers of forgiveness and human connection.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

“Water by the Spoonful” by Quiara Alegría Hudes

Raven Performing Arts Theater, 15 North St, Healdsburg, CA 95448

Through May 13, 2018

Tickets: $10-$25

Info: (707) 433-6335, www.raventheater.org

Recommended for mature audiences

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

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ASR Theater Review! Journeying “Into the Woods” with SRJC’s Theatre Arts Department – by Nicole Singley

Santa Rosa Junior College’s production of beloved musical “Into the Woods,” running through May 6th at the Maria Carrillo High School Theatre, enchants audiences with an imaginative mash-up of famous fairy tale figures set to witty tunes by Stephen Sondheim.

Thanks to the curse of a hideous witch (Alanna Weatherby), a baker and his wife (Brett Mollard and Katie Smith) are unable to have the child they so desperately desire. To break the hex, they must venture into the woods to find four ingredients the witch needs to brew a special potion. Their paths soon cross with classic characters like Little Red Riding Hood (Serena Poggi), Cinderella (Ella Park), Rapunzel (Shayla Nordby), and Jack (Levi Sterling), each on a quest of their own.

The first act is fast-paced, funny, and feel-good, wrapping up neatly with the promise of ‘happily ever after.’ In the second chapter, however, all hope for a fairy-tale ending is quickly – and quite literally – crushed. The pace slows and the comedy wanes as we are forced to confront harsh realities in the ‘ever after.’ As our characters soon learn the hard way, getting what we think we want doesn’t always pan out the way we hope it will.

SRJC has assembled an energetic and enthusiastic cast, whose efforts transcended the distraction of some unfortunate technical difficulties at the opening night performance. Smith brings a charming candor and sense of comedic timing to the role of Baker’s Wife, and Mollard aptly matches her charisma. Their convincing banter propels the plot and keeps the laughter coming. Background characters add much to the amusement, too, manifesting as curious rabbits and cleverly-clad deer among other accessory roles. Siobhan Aida O’Reilly delivers a standout performance as Jack’s beloved cow, Milky-White, who at times steals the show with her expressive gestures and winning mannerisms. Victor Santoyo Cruz is hilarious in brief appearances as Hen and Dwarf.

Music drives much of the story’s action, and while Sondheim’s lyrics are sharp and entertaining, the songs often struggle to find their melody. On the whole this troupe rises to the challenge, with noteworthy vocal performances by Weatherby and Cooper Bennett (Cinderella’s Prince not-so-charming). The actors are accompanied by a live off-stage orchestra.

This production is a feast for the eyes thanks to Maryanne Scozzari’s creative, quirky costumes and Peter Crompton’s elaborate and absorbing set, evoking the magic and opulence of grand libraries past. Books act as fluttering birds and rolling shelves transform into horses. Papier-mâché masks are made from pages lined with text, and kitchen gloves become cow udders. Rather than detracting from the action, the visuals are impactful and effectively enhance the story.

Clocking in at around two and a half hours, “Into the Woods” makes for a long but enjoyable night at the theater, and remains family-friendly despite the darker turn things take in Act II.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

“Into the Woods,” by Santa Rosa Junior College Theatre Arts Department

2.5 hours, with one 15-minute intermission

Maria Carrillo High School Theatre, 6975 Montecito Blvd, Santa Rosa, CA 95409

Through May 6, 2018

Tickets: $12-$22

Info: (707) 527-4307, http://theatrearts.santarosa.edu/

Recommended for ages 12 and above

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

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

 

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

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

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

Head Over Heels: A New Musical

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

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

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

Head Over Heels: Peppermint

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

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

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

 

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

130 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission

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

When: Through May 6, 2018.

Tickets: $29-$175

Info: 415-358-1220, SFCURRAN.com

Rating: Five Out of Five Stars

 

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

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

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

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

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

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

“Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller

Through April 28, 2018

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

Tickets: $18 – $28

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

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

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ASR Theater Review! 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 www.marinonstage.com

Rating: Three-and-a-half-stars

 

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical”

Through March 11, 2018

Lucky Penny Productions

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

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

 

Rating: Three-and-a-half-stars

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

Studio Theater, 6th Street Playhouse

52 W 6th St, Santa Rosa, CA 95401

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

 

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** 

 

ASR Technical Review! “Born Yesterday” at SF Playhouse Mostly Hits Technical Notes — by Team ASR

Note: These commentaries are primarily focused on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

Set in a $235-a-day hotel suite in our nation’s capital after WWII, “Born Yesterday” revolves around one Harry Brock, a self-made scrap-metal tycoon-cum-moneybags who comes to D.C. to buy himself a U.S. Senator. Along the way, he also buys (or so he thinks) a New Republic reporter named Paul Verrall to teach culture and manners to his mistress of eight-plus years, Emma “Billie” Dawn, a mink coat wearing former hoofer from the “Anything Goes” chorus line.

Simple enough. But as they often do in D.C., things go awry.

Because as Billie and Paul (quite quickly and with very little ramp-up) bookworm their way towards a romance, Billie morphs into the best looking, best educated dancer-cum-librarian in these forty-eight states (remember: the play takes place in 1946.)

She also turns a now knowing eye towards the ways Harry has been using/treating her – particularly as a “silent partner”, who, it turns out, owns 160 of what-were-Harry’s-but-are-now-Billie’s junkyards, since Harry insisted that she rather than he sign all the ownership documents (mostly unread.)

To Harry’s horror, Paul’s new student turns into a polished (as opposed to unpolished) dumb blonde, a well-read whistle-blowing crusader-cum-moralist who is in love with said reporter-tutor and not the least bit adverse to some not-so-subtle brink-womanship/blackmail regarding said scrapyards.

Next thing you know, love wins triumphant for Billie and her new beau while Harry has (we’re left to hope) learned his lesson(s) and is licking the wounds of his comeuppance. Curtain calls all around.

Not quite.

There are two flies in the ointment of the SF Playhouse production. As a character, Harry is a bully, a shark who is used to getting his way even if it involves slapping a few people around. That’s a given; no doubt. But, and it’s a BIG but, this play is written as a light comedy and the actor portraying Mr. Brock presents his character as a totally unlikeable, snarling woman (and man) beater. And since he’s such an obvious boob, no self-respecting graft-oriented Senator would get within strongarm (or bank deposit slip) distance of this walking Grand Jury deposition. So, if there is nothing at all likeable about Harry, we’re left with two holes in the plot:

  • If he’s such a relentless bully, hoodlum, and bruiser, why has Billie stayed with him for 8+ years? She may start the play as a “dumb blonde” but she’s obviously way smarter than to sign-up for endless abuse, even at Act 1-Scene
    1.
  • For the play to reach its intended comedy payoff, the audience should/must be laughing at Harry’s final comeuppance at the hands of these “born yesterday” newbies, Billie and Paul. Without his outraged sputtering, day-late-and-dollar-short, speechless hair-tearing, aghast flummoxing and proverbial pie-in-the-face downfall the audience is robbed of the comedy crescendo to which this tight script leads. He’s the real country bumpkin boob in this show.

Absent those two points, we’re left with a morality play.

***

Editor’s Note: One thing that’s interesting about “Born Yesterday” — As of February 2018, if you remove musicals from the equation, ”Born Yesterday”, based on its 1946-1949 run of 1,642 performances, remains inside the Top 10 Longest Running Broadway Plays list. And inside the Top 50 Longest Running Broadway Plays list even with musicals in the mix. Wow!

***

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:
SF Playhouse is known for nice sets. This one is, in a word, fabulous. Multi-layered, including a 2 or 3 story window with rear projection of The Mall in Washington, D.C., this is a set among sets. Major marks to Scenic Designer Jacquelyn Scott. Special nod to Projections Designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker. (Score: 9.5/10)

Set Construction:
Nice. Doors close nicely without shaking the two/three story walls. Two center stage columns impress without swaying as people and or doors move. The impressive stairway is quiet and its rails and balusters are sweet. Wall fit, trim and paint details are very, very well executed. The painted floor is also very nice. In short, very nice work all around and kudos to Maggie Koch (Production Manager), Zach Sigman (Technical Director) and all the SF Playhouse production technicians involved. (Score: 9.5/10)

Stage Management:
High-five to Beth Hall, the Stage Manager: the action behind the scenes was almost flawless. Cues were on their mark, entrances snappy, scenic (and projection) transitions timely. Nice work Beth — and Emily Kovalcik, stage management intern. (Score: 9/10)

Sound:
The show doesn’t have an especially large sound cue list, but all of the ever-present Mr. Hulsker’s sounds were executed and voiced well. (Score: 9/10)

Props:
Speaking of omni-present, Ms. Scott of Scenic Design fame also serves as Properties Manager for this production and did yeowoman’s work on this front as well. The furniture was tasteful, the props as period as possible it appeared. (Score: 9/10)

Costumes:
Mid- 20th century (1946) is always a tricky ask of any costumer. Abra Berman took a mighty swing and darn near got all the costumes right. A couple of outfits looked more ‘50s than mid-‘40s, but still a solid job. (Score: 8/10)

Direction:
Susi Damilano knows directing cold. Let’s get that straight right off. She’s a top-flight director. And, comedy – any comedy, anywhere, anytime, in any theater – is hard to direct. Period.

As seen, this show did not represent Ms. Damilano’s very best. Pacing was a solid beat too slow in Act 1 and missed by more in Act 2. Character arcs were left too flat and we missed-out on the comedic payoff of Mr. Brock’s comeuppance (mentioned above.)

To be fair, 1940’s words-and-phrases require more work on the part of actors and directors. Characters of this period often spoke sotto voce, or out of the side of their mouth. (Think Cary Grant, Abner Bieberman, Rosalind Russell, and Ralph Bellamy in “His Girl Friday”.) These were well trained radio actors who knew how to nuance each line they delivered.

On a related note, actors in this show too often spoke both too soft and off-axis from the audience, making it difficult to hear the lines and the jokes. Vocal projection, from these sorts of characters and with this sort of material, is to be expected. When an audience works to hear or to decipher a line (or ‘accent’) jokes die.

Ditto when line speed slows down. Comedy, especially of this period, needs to be tight, crisp, and rat-a-tat fast. (Score: 8/10)

Lighting:
By and large, Michael Oesch’s lighting design for this show was good. In particular, the upstairs lighting and that of the entryway was very well conceived and executed. That said, there were noticeable gaps between the lights set for downstage. At this production level, the audience should not see a dim zone between lights. (Score: 8/10)

Casting:
Casting by Lauren English and Bebe La Grua was mostly fine, with two notable exceptions: the actors selected to portray Mr. Brock and and Mr. Verrall. Both were too ‘one note.’ On the other hand, Ms. Millie Brooks is delightful actress. (Score: 8/10)

Overall Production:
What went right: Killer set. Tight stage management. Solid props and sound. Mostly solid costumes and lights.
What missed a bit: Direction. Casting.

So, excepting a couple of infield ground balls, (which, to be fair, can largely be addressed) this show has the potential to be the sort of solid inside-the-park home-run production we’re used to from SF Playhouse. (Score: 8.5/10)

Overall Theater Tech Score: (86.5/100) Good work, worth seeing.

 

Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin

Directed by Susi Damilano
Runs thru March 10, 2018 at SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA
Performance run time is approx. 2 hours 30 minutes w/one 15-minute intermission.
Tickets available online at sfplayhouse.org or by phone at 415.677.9596

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is not:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cops and Robbers:

Directed by Ami Zins and Lew Levinson.

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

Mature content: appropriate for ages 15+.

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

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

Run time: 90 minutes with one intermission.

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

ASR Technical Review! ‘Cops and Robbers’ is Solid Theater — by Team ASR

Note: These commentaries are primarily focused on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

The set for this show is a black stage and black curtain backdrop, and the lone prop a hard-backed chair positioned center stage right. The program begins with an opening montage of video clips.

The content of this script and the acting combined with effective sound effects, conveyed what a more over-thought set design would have obscured. That said, I’m giving this design a 7 out of 10 because it didn’t try to do more. (Score: 7/10)

Set Construction:

(Score: N/A)

Stage Management:

To the Stage Manager’s credit, the action behind the scenes was mostly smooth. A bit less time in blackout would have been better. Sound cues were on their mark. (Score: 8/10)

Sound:

Watch out for Mr. Ferreira’s microphone; it was over-driven, causing distortion at a couple points. Sound effects were very well chosen—unobtrusive and well delivered—supporting the action. (Score: 7.5/10)

Props:

In a one-person show with a blank stage, a wooden chair, sound effects, and one actor, the props department gets a well-deserved bye.  (Score: N/A.)

Costumes:

Mr. Ferreira’s costume was a basic black T-shirt and black, military-style cargo pants with black police boots. The simplicity of the costume worked well as the principal actor morphed from character to character. Again, not over-thinking these choices aided and supported the production. (Score: 7/10)

Direction:

Tightly directed for the most part. Pacing was good, a demanding task in a one-person show which makes the kinds of physical demands on an actor that this play does. A couple character transitions showed flashes of questionable acting choices. (Score: 7/10)

Lights:

The lights were uneven. On more than one occasion Mr. Ferreira was performing between lights in a dim zone. There was no indication that this was required by the script. This is not good anytime but especially for a one person show. (Score: 4/10)

Casting:

N/A as the playwright is the principal actor. (Score: N/A.)

Overall Production

A little more attention to sound management and light placement would add value. The video montage at the top of the program could be cut tighter to build towards the play opening rather than feeling a bit like a bolted-on attraction. A tiny bit of polish on the direction/acting choices in a couple character changes would add even more luster.   (Score: 8/10)

Reviewer Score:

This is an important piece of theater that is effectively rendered. People talk about how this-or-that theater production made them think. This program does that very, very well. Go see this show, and bring every friend and neighbor you can find. (Score: 8.5/10)

Overall Theater Tech Score: (57/80) Good work.

Cops and Robbers

Directed by Ami Zins and Lew Levinson.

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

Mature content: appropriate for ages 15+.

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

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

Run time: 90 minutes with one intermission.

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians,

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

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

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

 

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

 

ASR Technical Review! Theater Rhino Breaks the Tech Code in Turing Play! — by Team ASR

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

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

The hit revival of Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 Breaking the Code by Theater Rhinoceros at the Eureka Theater masterfully captures Turing’s professional assent, first for his contributions in developing computer science as we know it then later for his pivotal part in breaking the Nazi’s Enigma code that helped the Allies win World War II to his subsequent tragic fall from public grace for being homosexual. Whether by nature or necessity, Turing was a complex man who tried—and ultimately failed—to compartmentalize his life, leading to his apparent suicide in 1954. Directed by and starring Theater Rhinoceros Artistic Director John Fisher, this show is must-see drama.

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

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

Too many community and regional theaters try misdirect the audience from lackluster acting and direction by self-conscious sets or visual effects. The set by Jon Wai-keung Lowe is ingeniously simple and forms a perfect backdrop for the events of Mr. Turing’s life, emphasizing the theory that it’s the acting that makes the play. (Score: 8/10)

Set Construction:

Dave Gardner’s set construction was well done and inserting doors into the blackboards stage left and right was a clever addition.  (Score: 7/10)

Stage Management:

Congratulations to stage manager Valerie Tu (soon to be interning at Chicago’s fabled Steppenwolf Theater) and her assistant Cat Howser for spot-on actor, lighting, and sound cues. Of note was having the actors re-position the furniture and props in semi-darkness between scenes. Mr. Fisher in particular seemed to be channeling Fred Astaire as he deftly and precisely accomplished his tasks during the scene changes.  (Score: 8/10)

Sound:

Colin Johnson’s sound effects were largely good although it was confusing when the office/typewriter effects weren’t always audible when the door into Mr. Turing’s room was opened. (Score: 7/10)

Props:

John Fisher’s props are spare but period proper and well rendered, an ornament to the acting, not mere set—or actor—decoration. (Score: 7.5/10)

Costumes:

Lara Rempel’s costume choices were first-rate, period proper, and well rendered. Period hose on the ladies was a nice detail, as was the damp T-shirt on Mr. Turing as he finished jogging.  (Score: 8/10)

Direction:

Clearly a well-rehearsed production, the direction was solid, professional, and well executed with twice the much-deserved applause because the director is also the lead actor. It is much more difficult to direct yourself than others but John Fisher did it seamlessly. Pacing was nice—brisk but not breathless. The show also used pauses well—a rare dramatic art these days.) (Score: 8.5/10)

Lights:

Jon Wai-keung Lowe and Sean Keehan’s lighting design was subtle and largely unobtrusive but with one hitch: on more than one occasion actors were performing between lights in a dim zone. (Score: 7.5/10)

Casting:

The gentlemen in the cast were solid and Mr. Fisher was simply outstanding. New or seasoned acting students should buy tickets to study a professional at work.

Frank Wang played hustler Ron Miller obliquely as a man made of angles and edges, each sharper than the last.  Val Henrickson, as Turing co-worker Dillwyn Knox, provided a witty performance as the neighborhood and cultural oracle of bad things to come.

Particularly enjoyable was Patrick Ross as empathetic detective Mike Ross, who seems genuinely hurt that Mr. Turing has blurted out a story revealing his own homosexuality, leaving the lawman no choice but to investigate Mr. Turing and charge him with gross indecency. The scene is hard to watch and the audience was silent save for the collective sign of 60 souls seeing a man put himself squarely in the crosshairs of the law.

Heren Patel assumes two roles in the show: an awkward school boy and a Grecian guy-for-rent whose stream of Greek-speech is both impressive and quite funny.

One acting note: when an actor is supposed to write something—in this case it was an address–on a piece of paper, the actor should quickly write the address down, not just apply pen to paper and scribble. Details always count, but especially so in a quality production like this.  (Score: 8/10)

Overall Production:

As produced by Theatre Rhinoceros  and expertly directed by John Fisher, Breaking theCode is thoughtful, taut, often funny, touching, heartfelt, and skillfully rendered. The drama is crisply written.  (8.5/10)

Reviewer Score:

From lights-up to lights-down, this fast-paced production is how quality theater is done. This is not a hard code to break: run, don’t walk, to see this show—and bring your friends.  (Score: 8.5/10)

Overall Score: 86.5/110. Very good work.

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

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

Tickets at: http://www.therhino.org/buy.htm or 1-800- 838-3006

Run time: 2:10 with one intermission.

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there is Monique Hafen as Amy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

***

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

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

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colin Johnson’s sound effects were generally good.

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

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

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

Run time: 2:10 with one intermission.

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

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

ALSO AVAILABLE…

Script available here. 

Audio Theater Edition available here.

Masterpiece Theater version available here.

Book available here.

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

***

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

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

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

ASR Technical Review! ‘Company’ Rocks at SF Playhouse — by Team ASR

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

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

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

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

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

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

The set design by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott is elegant on many levels because the set is built on, you guessed it, many levels. The scenic rear projections as designed by Micah Stieglitz add a powerful theatrical touch to the proceedings. (Score: 8/10)

Set Construction:

In a word: quality. A well constructed, well thought-out set. No extraneous architecture—nothing that didn’t need to be there was there. (Score: 8/10)

Stage Management:

As rendered by Tatjana Genser, the stage management was tight with sound and light cues snappily in place.  (Score: 8/10)

Sound:

The sound design by Anton Hedman works well. (Score: 7/10)

Props:

The props design is fine—what props need to be in place are in place, work well, and underscore scenes nicely. (Score: 7/10)

Costumes:

Costume design by Shannon Sigman takes full marks—elegant, well designed, and nicely rendered. All the actors looked darn good in Sigman’s work. (Score: 8/10)

Direction:

As directed by SF Playhouse co-founder Susi Damilano, Company is well blocked with excellent stage pictures rendered on the multiple layers of the stage. This adds complexity to the directorial process because it’s easier to watch/direct actors at the same time on a single level plane versus actors scattered liberally from stage left to stage right and upstage to downstage.

Blocking takes on aspects of choreography in many plays (both musical and non-musical), and Damilano handled movement well. My only nudge would be that cue pick-ups could be quicker, brisker, and the same nudge for scene transitions—a bit faster might have added even more audience energy to the proceedings. (Score: 8/10)

Musical Direction:

Company eschews the full orchestration and electric guitars of most productions, relying instead on two pianos, located stage left and stage right. Music Director Dave Dobrusky hosts one of these pianos and surely conducts his musical charges. The effect of this two-piano strategy is more personal, less grandiose than a full or even partial orchestra. That said, at times it felt a bit like the cast was fighting the sound envelope of the pianos. (Score: 6/10)

Lights:

The lighting design by Michael Oesch in and of itself works well. (Score: 8/10)

NOTE: But I have significant reservation about a couple of architectural lighting issues. The house right and house left tormentor lights spill too much light into the audience area. The same is true of the lights high, upstage center. The light spillage was very distracting and detracted from the quality of what was happening onstage.

Casting:

The casting was a bit uneven. Disappointing, as the majority of the cast ranged from good to superb.  (Score: 7/10)

Overall Production:

As presented by SF Playhouse, Company gives general audiences and those of us inside theater a solid example of taking a musical from some years back and making it modern, energetic, and appealing to a contemporary audience.

The acting of Monique Hafen made this show for me. Her stellar history with SF Playhouse is now the stuff of regional theater legend. Soon, I have little doubt, it will be the stuff of Broadway legend as well. (Score: 8.5/10)

Reviewer Score:

SF Playhouse has demonstrated to everyone that they know how to rock musical theater. From awards won to sell-out nights, SF Playhouse knows musicals. Company continues that proud heritage.

The quality of SF Playhouse musical productions should be a beacon to technical theater artists as well as actors across the US, and, indeed, globally. (Score: 8.5/10)

Overall Score: (92/120) Extremely good work.

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

 

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

Tickets are $20-$120 (discounts available). Call 415-677-9596 or visit http://www.sfplayhouse.org.

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

ASR Technical Review! August Wilson Play Works Hard — by Team ASR

NOTE: The following commentary is focused primarily on the production, direction, and technical aspects of Theater and Performing Arts.

Two Trains Running is Mr. Wilson’s seventh effort in his ten-part series of plays entitled The Pittsburgh Cycle. The play was first produced by the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, and later opened on Broadway in the spring of 1992 at the Walter Kerr Theatre. The version I’m reviewing is in The City now and is presented at the Gough Street Playhouse and produced by Multi Ethnic Theater in association with Custom Made Theater.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

The set design—that of a scruffy café so much a part of neighborhoods everywhere—was satisfactory. The turquoise booths were period perfect. The bare bones kitchen also fitting. (Score: 5/10)

Set Construction:

Unpainted plywood here-and-there underlined a business managed with small dollars and ‘just enough’ repairs. Set construction showed care. Making a set look down-on-its-luck without making it look slapdash is harder than one might imagine. The set designer/builders (Lewis Campbell and David Hampton) did so here. (Score: 6/10)

Stage Management:

Cues were solid and well timed, as were actor entrances. Although technically a directing note, actor exits should be quicker in order to drive the play forward. (Score: 5/10)

Sound:

Sound design was satisfactory. (Score: 5/10)

Props:

Props were period and detailed. Even though no one in the play ate anything requiring catsup, the always ubiquitous red plastic catsup dispenser appeared one-third full. The bowl of beans eaten by Hambone were appealing, as was the coffee dispensed by Risa. (Score: 7/10)

Costumes:

Costumes were period 1969 in look and nicely selected (especially those for Wolf.) Shoe selection was nice. Accessory selection was also good.  A bit more attention to fit would render some costumes perfect. (Score: 5/10)

Direction:

As directed by Lewis Campbell with Esperanza Catubig assisting, Two Trains Running runs 3 hours including one intermission. The running time is important, as slowness of pacing was an issue on opening night. This play requires pacing more like everyday life, with the dynamics of neighbors talking with neighbors they’ve known for years; that is to say briskly, sometimes obliquely, with awareness of personal quirks and hot buttons, and with every intent to find or deliver a message, a joke, a jab, or a cut.

The actors cast in this production were certainly more than capable of doing this sort of work, but on opening night the presentation was too muted. (Note: It was extremely hot in the theater this night and I’m sure that had an impact on the actors. I know it had one on the audience.) (Score: 5/10)

Lights:

Lighting design was satisfactory with one note: the kitchen was never lit, not even by a single bulb. This seemed incorrect.  (Score: 5/10)

Casting:

Solid acting highlighted by Fabian Herd (Wolf), Vernon Medearis (West), and Stuart Elwyn Hall (Holloway.) All three actors demonstrated a keen ability to do what so many actors fail at: to listen to what is being said by other actors, instead of simply waiting for their turn to speak. These gentlemen delivered acting in considered gradations, rendering layered performances which would hold them in good stead with notable theaters across this country.  (Score: 7/10)

Overall Production:

A good effort to present what will no doubt become an American classic. More pacing, quicker exits, and a tad more attention to costume fit would polish the production. The production crew needs to think more about patron comfort on hot August nights; additional fans would help make the tight confines of the Gough Street Playhouse more amenable to sellout audiences. (Score: 6/10)

Reviewer Score:

There is little doubt August Wilson has a ‘reserved seat’ in the pantheon of Greatest American Playwrights. Seeing Multi Ethnic Theater’s production of Two Trains Running shows why. (Score: 6/10)

Overall Score: (62/110) Good work.

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

Industry Commentary…

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

Also Available…

Script available here. 

Script, Samuel French  available here.

Study Guide available here.

Paybill from Broadway run available here.

Discount Tickets are also available on Goldstar

Tickets are available on the theater’s website.

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

ASR Technical Review! Shakespeare Does it Physically in Marin — by Team ASR

NOTE: The following commentary is focused primarily on the production, direction, and technical aspects of Theater and Performing Arts.

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

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

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

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

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

The play, making its U.S. debut, is ably directed by Ms. Lesley Schisgall Currier in a production that appears to a take on elements of the Commedia dell’arte style: spare sets, masked actors (thanks to the artistry of Mr. David Poznanter), and standardize costumes. Paired with hand-selected segments of the text by Miguel de Cervantes, the show unfortunately succeeds in feeling a bit like the books upon which the play is based— a bit tedious as the end draws neigh. The show starts out grandly and the first act moves quite briskly. The second act? Not so much. By the end of the show it felt somewhat like a long visit by a good friend: you’re at once delighted to have been so entertained but wish the evening’s festivities would wrap-up.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

Ms. Currier kept the set design simple and even spare, via the able design of Mr. Jackson Currier. Again, this may be intentional on her part vis-à-vis Commedia dell’arte. The back wall of the set is painted to appear as a library, featuring shelves upon shelves of books. This effect works well in Act 1, Scene 1, but once our hero had left his house in search of adventure, the library wall felt incongruous. (Score: 6/10)

Set Construction:

Set construction was solid, as the ramped “mountain” in center stage played host to a small army of people. (Score: 8/10)

Stage Management:

Stage management (from Gillian Confair) on opening night can sometimes be tricky as actors and technicians all work through opening night jitters. Such appeared to be the case here, with a few tardy scene transitions and actor entrances. Light and sound cues, however, were prompt and unobtrusive. (Score: 6/10)

Sound:

Sound levels suffered from some of the natural vagaries of outdoor theater: the actors’ voice levels dipping when they spoke off-axis to the audience, etc. The sound system speakers need bolstering, perhaps something along the lines of a couple of folded 18-inch speakers or a subwoofer to add bottom-end power to the mix. Body microphones would also have added additional presence. (Score: 5/10)

Props:

Props (from Joel Eis) were used only as needed and expertly rendered. (Score: 8/10)

Costumes:

Costumes (from Maria Chenut) tended toward a universal tan/brown in color, but were well-crafted. Care was obviously taken to bespoke the actors professionally. (Score: 8/10)

Direction:

The physical comedy scenes were well-rendered, if in need of a touch more rehearsal to make them appear a bit less, well, rehearsed. Comedic impact of the text would have benefited from tighter cue pick-ups and brisker tempo. No one knows the physical limitations of this stage better than Mr. and Mrs. Currier, so blocking was universally good throughout. (Score: 6/10)

Lights:

Lighting, like sound, can be a tricky beast outside, even in an amphitheater set below local ground level. A slightly more consistent, balanced lighting plot would have made the visual aspects of the work come off more seamlessly. (Score: 6/10)

Casting:

Full marks to Mr’s. Campbell and Lewis, as previously mentioned. The rest of the cast was competent and delivered reliable performances. (Score: 8/10)

Overall Production:

A solid, well directed new adaptation of a classic work which benefits from the efforts of one of the best physical comedians in the Bay Area. Outdoor theater comes with built-in technical challenges which were, to a large degree, successfully navigated. (Score: 7/10)

Reviewer Score:

A good outdoor effort of a version of Don Quixote which this reviewer hopes will benefit from a bit of a duration trim on its way to becoming a theatrical staple, and a tad of tempo tightening during its current run.  The play was very, very well-served by the addition of Mr. Campbell and Mr. Lewis. (Score: 7/10)

Overall Score: (75/110) Good work.

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Industry Commentary…

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

Also Available…

Script available here. 

Script, Samuel French  available here.

Study Guide available here.

Paybill from Broadway run available here.

Discount Tickets are also available on Goldstar

Tickets are available on the theater’s website.

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

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

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

ASR Technical Review! Big David Mamet Results in a Small Theater — by Team ASR

NOTE: The following commentary is focused primarily on the production, direction, and technical aspects of Theater and Performing Arts.

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

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

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

So in a nutshell, how was the Shelton’s version of the show? The actors do a serviceable job with the dynamic script that’s full of rapid-fire dialogue, and the technical aspects largely delivered their intended results.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

The set in the small footprint Shelton Theater were quite effective. A Chinese restaurant, the focus of the first few scenes of the production, boasted beautiful red upholstery and was accented with maple-stained wood trim.  With clean lines, the restaurant set was complemented by a simple black lacquer table and white curtains.  The real estate office’s white walls included a well-painted marble effect that transported the audience right into the twisted business.  Both sets leveraged the Shelton Theater’s size and geometry to good effect. The sets were designed, built, and painted by Matt Shelton and Adam Stowers. (Score: 8/10)

Set Construction:

The set was carefully built to capture the essence of the environments displayed. The resulting effect was more than your run-of-the-mill set—simple yet effective. The brown stair step leading from the street into the office struck a somewhat incongruous note. (Score: 7/10)

Stage Management:

To the credit of Stage Manager, Muriel Shattack, the action behind the scenes was smooth. The backstage crew controlled the on-stage chaos with near perfect set changes and actors made entrances promptly. Lighting and sound crews were on their mark and associated cues were tight. (Score: 8/10)

Sound:

Sound design was by Alex Boyd. At the outset, Mr. Boyd’s music and mood effects inside the Chinese restaurant worked well. In contrast, the sound effects and music underscoring the key set change were overwrought, taking the audience away from the moment. (Score: 5/10)

Props: 

An important facet of a strong production is the use of effective props. Shelton’s prop designer invoked realism with matching turquoise office chairs, harmonious dishes and tea set accessories, as well as a file cabinet full of…files. By-and-large, everything was in its proper place and presented a well thought-out design. One inconsistent note was a tea bag, seen floating in the bottom of a glass coffee pot. When an actor says something to the effect that he hasn’t had a cup of coffee all day and pours same from a glass coffee pot containing a floating tea bag clearly visible to the audience, the result is unimpressive.  (Score: 7/10)

Costumes:

Costumes were realistic, pressed/ironed as appropriate and well presented. Each slimy salesman wore immaculate, pressed suits fitting for the 1980s. Shoes were stylish and polished. Style/design elements were well considered and selected.  (Score: 8/10)

Direction:

Mamet challenges directors of every experience level. Director Sasha Litovchenko succeeds for the most part. Pacing was a tad uneven in spots. It also felt like a bit more work needed to be done on the acting choices made in some of the scenes, particularly in Act 1 Scene 1. Blocking and movement were satisfactory. (Score: 5/10)

Lights:

One of the greatest challenges of the space at Shelton Theater is its low hanging ceiling. Still, the lighting design by Colin Pope captured the essence of the script for the most part. The lights were hung evenly, but on more than one occasion actors were performing between lights, in a bit of a dim zone. (Score 6/10)

Casting:

Good casting, nice mix. The seasoned actors did a good job with the material. Mr. Shelton’s work in particular was outstanding. The Eastern European accent of one of the other actors was a bit thick at times. Philip Estrin avoids clichés and nails the role of down-but-not-quite-out Shelley Levene. Matt Crawford as Moss, looks straight out of Central Casting as the schemer who launches the idea of the salesmen robbing their own office. (Score: 8/10)

Overall Production:

The Shelton Theater’s production of Mamet is a solid presentation of a great American classic. Overall, Shelton paid better-than-average attention to the technical aspects of the theater. (Score: 7/10)

Reviewer Score:

Shelton Theater’s iteration of Glengarry Glen Ross works incredibly hard to sell the intent and intensity of Mr. Mamet’s work. For the small audience on Friday night, Shelton largely delivered the goods. If you like drama, go see this solid take on an American classic. (Score: 7/10)

Overall Score: (75/110) Good work.

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

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

Show times and Place: Thursday – Saturday 8:00 pm.  Box Office and Bar open at 7:00 pm. The Shelton Theater is located at 533 Sutter St. between Powell and Mason, in San Francisco.

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there was Norman A. Hall.

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

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

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

Show dates are:

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

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

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

***

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

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

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

 

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