ASR Not-So-Random Questions Time: The Theatre Maestro with a Great Sense of Humor — Tom Ross!

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

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

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

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

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross inaugurated Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company with Barbara Oliver in 1992 and served 12 years as Managing Director. In 2004, he became Artistic Director, holding that position 15 years. He stepped down last August.

Tom oversaw both Aurora’s move into the Addison Street space and the expansion into the Dashow Wing. He created the new play initiatives, “The Global Age Project” and “Originate+Generate” as well as the second performance space, Harry’s Upstage.

He directed 30 productions for the company.

Additionally, Tom wrote and directed the long running A Karen Carpenter Christmas, and for 8 years was a producer of SF’s Solo Mio Festival.

Before moving to the Bay Area, Tom worked 8 years at NYC’s Public Theater as Executive Assistant to Joseph Papp and then as co-director of Play and Musical Development.

Getting any time on Mr. Ross’ calendar is a tough ask, so we at ASR were grateful for his time, his humor, and his candor. Ladies and Gents… Mr. Tom Ross…

ASR: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen a guest do at the theater?

TR: A married couple stopped a performance of Neil LaBute’s “This is How It Goes”, shouting at the actors and audience that this is not a play that should be presented in Berkeley.

It is a purposely provocative play that uses the N-word and is about a smiling secret racist character. The play was going to be over within three minutes. The couple walked across the stage and told the actors that they didn’t have to debase themselves this way. The audience thought it was a part of the play.

Luckily, the incident was written about in the Chronicle and the play became a must-see. The Chronicle called it one of the 10 best plays of the year. Still I’d never seen anything like the reaction it caused. I was the director and in the house.

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

TR: Unquestionably, the great producer Joseph Papp who I worked for at the Public Theatre in NY for 8 years. First as his Executive Assistant and then as Co-Director of Play and Musical Development.

He told me that I should be a director.

He supported me in producing my first show and in writing my first show at the Public Theatre. I told him he gave me a spine and he liked that.

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

TR: Well… I’ve worn a significant number of theatrical hats. In general, I’d say understand the business as well as the art.

Only get involved in projects you truly believe in.

And it’s a collaborate art. Treat your collaborators with respect.

ASR: How do you relax before a performance?

TR: Thai food and a glass of pinot grigio.

…I told him he gave me a spine and he liked that.

ASR: If you were arrested with no explanation, what would your friends and family assume you had done?

TR: Lied about my age.

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

TR: That is a (tough) question to answer (specifically.) I am a part of an incredible community here in the Bay Area. I know they have my back – as do so many theater friends from the NYC days.

I keep wanting to jump off Facebook, but would miss keeping up with them. I respect and love my friends.

ASR: What three songs are Included on the soundtrack to your life? And why each?

TR: Wow! I am a music person. I have hundreds of CDs here in my place. I listen to music all of the time – even at Aurora Theatre I’d be constantly DJ’ing in the office.

The other day, during this shelter in place, I was listening to “The Only Living Boy in New York” by Simon and Garfunkel – “Tom, get your plane ride on time…” – and it really touched me deeply.

ASR: Which one fashion accessory do you like better than others?

TR: The beautiful Hawaiian shirts I have bought in Hawaii over the years.

ASR: Which play would you like to see put into deep freeze for 20 years?

TR: I don’t know about 20 years, but the programming of Broadway producers seems extremely repetitive.

A few years ago, I was in Times Square looking at all of the marquees and billboards and I thought I was in a time machine. Hello 70’s and 80’s!

ASR: Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

TR: Although I think that “King Lear” is the greatest play ever written, I don’t do Shakespeare.

ASR: If you had to do a whole season performing one of the following technical theater roles: Light, Props or Costumes which would it be and why?

TR: I’d be a Light Designer. Like Sound, it’s so ephemeral and can be devastatingly effective.

I like the subliminal. Lights and sound for me.

ASR: What would be the coolest animal to scale up to the size of a horse?

TR: I’d be terrified of scaling up any animal! If my cat was that big, we couldn’t share the bed and she’d be extremely annoyed. I’d be sleeping on the floor!

ASR: Shark diving, bungee jumping, or skydiving?

TR: Skydiving.

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

TR: “Indecent Materials” by Larry Kramer. I’d brought it to the Public Theatre who produced it and then did it here in SF with my producing partner Jayne Wenger when I first moved here.

It featured my first leading lady (and still dear friend) Anne Darragh as Jesse Helms.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

TR: “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barry Willis

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

 

 

ProductionYear of Magical Thinking
Written byJoan Didion
Directed byNancy Carlin
Producing CompanyAurora Theater Co.
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressAurora Theater Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone510.843.4822
Tickets$49 – $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

 

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.

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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!

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