ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Feeling the Beat with Transcendence Theatre Company’s Music Director Daniel Weidlein

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.

***

Winner of a San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle award for Transcendence Theatre Company’s 2019 production of A Chorus Line, Daniel Weidlein is a music producer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and music director based in Los Angeles.

Originally from Boulder, Colorado, Daniel has enjoyed a diverse career spanning many parts of the entertainment industry, from acting in Academy Award-winner Whiplash, to performing and music directing on season 3 of NBC’s The Sing Off, to writing and producing Billboard charting music for artists like Blake McGrath, Stan Taylor, and Miss Peppermint. He owns and operates BioSoul Music, a boutique recording studio in LA. In addition to his work as music director and orchestrator for Sonoma County-based Transcendence Theater Company, Daniel has been integral in the development of new musicals such as The Mollyhouse by Richard Hanson and Divya Maus, and Bottleshock by James Sasser and Charles Burwell.

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Daniel Weidlein. Photo by Taryn Dudley.

 

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

DW: From a very young age I acted in musicals, and always loved film musicals in particular, so it’s in my bones. But as I grew older, I felt the call to avenues of performing music.

Professionally, I have worked as a music producer, arranger, music director, instrumentalist, and singer. In almost every single one of those capacities I eventually was brought to the intersection point of the Venn diagram of music and theater.

A major turning point in that regard was the work I did with Morgan Karr in the pop music realm, but ultimately it led me to the work I do in the Bay Area with Transcendence Theatre Company.

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

DW: The Grifters—a musical theatre adaptation of the book-turned-film with book and lyrics by Joe Giuffre, with music (and musical direction) by yours truly in 2013.  Imagine—a theatrical concert of original music from various shows with Transcendence Theatre Company in 2015.

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

DW: Ahh…Transcendence Theatre Company (Sonoma County), Fogg Theatre Company (San Francisco), NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts (New York City).

ASR: When was your present company formed?

DW: TTC set down roots in Sonoma in 2011 and has been growing ever since!

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

DW: Bringing the Broadway experience to the Sonoma Valley!

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

DW: My fiancé! Divya Maus is an incredible composer and lyricist (wrote The Mollyhouse with Richard Hanson and is in development on a new show, Elijah, that she has written herself).

I serve as the music director, orchestrator, and general editor for her shows. Being able to build her vision from the ground up has helped me grow faster in this business than any “gig.”

 

….Les Miserables had its place, but we don’t need to keep beating it over our own heads.

 

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

DW: Transcendence has been putting on a wonderful online season of shows comprised of highlights from the past ten summers of shows in Jack London State park. There’s one more online show this coming weekend, Sep. 11-13, to commemorate their annual Gala fundraiser!

ASR: How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your planning for coming seasons?

DW: Phew…where to begin? Let’s just hope we can all be back in person in the theater next year…

ASR: How do you envision the future the theater community overall?

DW: I truly believe that theater is going to come back stronger than ever. Nothing replaces an in-person theatrical experience, and the kindling that’s keeping the drive and passion of idle performers all across this country is going to ignite into a brilliant blaze once those hearts and voices and feet are unleashed on the stage again.

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

DW: West Side Story is a no-brainer. I love Parade. I love Angels in America (I so wish I could have seen the recent revival). I love Hadestown!

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

DW: Transcendence has only done one full musical so far (the rest are handcrafted reviews and concerts from the Broadway lineage)—A Chorus Line—but it was a blast! Chicago was slated for 2020…

ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays? Care to share titles of those you would never produce—or never produce again?

DW: Les Miserables had its place, but we don’t need to keep beating it over our own heads.

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

DW: I love Rent, but it’s become that song that’s been played one too many times. I think it may actually age really well if we just hit pause.

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

DW: I’m a huge fan of Cole Porter’s music, and yet I will bashfully admit that I’ve only seen Kiss Me Kate. The rest of my experience of his music is through the jazz world.

But I think this is the perfect answer to your question…because his musicals don’t get staged enough!

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

DW: Seems hard to call any of them underrated…but I’d say Much Ado About Nothing. The tragedies get the credit they deserve, and have deep themes that still very much resonate today, but I think what stands out about Much Ado is that it feels so current, and so modern.

Not just thematically, but in the actual writing. Update the language and the writing and humor feel like they’re part of the canon of indie comedic film writing that I love so much.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

DW: Hamlet. It’s great…I often feel like I just want to read it though. If you’re going to put it on, please give me a fresh reason to do so!

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

DW: Light and projections. I’m fascinated with how much you can influence the audience experience with lighting.

I remember seeing Fun Home and being so captivated by how powerful the lighting and projections were. Super simple, yet so powerful.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

DW: I can’t say her name enough—Lexy Fridell. One of the most brilliant comedic actresses I’ve ever seen in any context, and you Bay Area folks have her all to yourself now in Sonoma after her return from stints in LA and NY.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

DW: It’s all about building adrenaline so it doesn’t slam into you when the performance starts. So I like to have a little coffee, move my body around a lot, and do a few mental run-throughs of exciting moments of the show.

Afterward, I eat. A lot. All that adrenaline burns calories!

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

DW:  Great question.

1. It’s all about relationships. Great work is meaningless if you don’t do it in conjunction with all the other people and moving parts that make a show possible.

2. Learn what makes your work unique, and do everything to exploit and celebrate it, rather than try to adapt it to the “norm.”

3. Don’t be afraid to be wrong. Make bold choices—make interesting choices—and let the work and/or the people around you (but not the critics!) inform whether those choices are working or need to be altered.

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

DW: There are so many valuable friendships that I have developed through theater. I think the beauty of the theater world is the work requires you to go deep on a personal level with the material—and you’re spending exorbitant amounts of time with one another—so inevitably you end up going deep with your peers during the process.

Compared to most other spheres of my life, I’ve definitely developed more deeply consistent relationships in theater than in any other.

I’ll highlight one great friendship with Tony Gonzalez, a frequent director and choreographer at Transcendence. Tony and I were both new to the creative team in 2016 and were tasked with co-designing and leading the high octane dance show of that year.

The entire process was a masterclass in “yes, and” from the creation side and still to this day is one of my favorite shows I’ve ever put on a stage. With that foundation, Tony has become someone I can share any thought, any concern, any emotion with freely, and he’s always the most supportive and caring friend anyone could ask for!

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

DW: I’ve seen audience members try to get hand-on with actors coming through the aisles on numerous occasions…please don’t

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

DW: I do not! I write and produce music (mostly for other artists…so it’s KINDA a day job…) all day every day when I’m not music directing or playing saxophone and piano.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

DW: Hiking, cooking, basketball, my dog Puri Bhaji.

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

DW: “John Boy” by Brad Mehldau — it feels like the perfect expression of the curiosity I was talking about earlier.

“Bad Religion” by Frank Ocean — this is the song that can freeze me in my tracks anywhere at anytime. It explores life in a raw, painful way that is so relatable. And Frank’s voice is the ultimate vehicle for expressing that quest.

“Fire in the Sky” by Daniel Weidlein — thought it would be fun to include one of my own. This is the title track off of one of my jazz albums and is really accurate example of how I sometimes can articulate my thoughts and emotions better musically than verbally.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

DW: I’m a big jewelry fan in general. Earrings, rings, necklaces. I love making them all work within my wardrobe.

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

DW: An ant. Sounds scary, but it’s insane how much they can carry at their current size. Just imagine…

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, sky diving?

DW: I’ve done a bit of rock climbing. I’m not great with heights, so I feel like I need to conquer that at some point and go sky diving.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

DW: “I’m curious what makes you so curious,” from Django Unchained. I’m notoriously curious, and one of the things that captivates me most is what drives other people!

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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.

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: ASR Meets Husband-and-Wife Stage Talents Michael Scott Wells and Danielle DeBow

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.

***

Among the Bay Area’s few married couples who are equally immersed in theater, Michael Scott Wells and Danielle DeBow frequently appear together onstage. Both are Associate Artists with Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions, but their art frequently takes them to other venues. They also work together away from the theater, and have a toddler—the very definition of togetherness.

Michael Scott Wells: Born in Southern California and raised in the Bay Area, Michael has been a part of the theater community for the past fifteen years as an actor, director, fight choreographer, sound designer, casting associate, and musician.

He has appeared on stage recently for CCCT (Bright Star), Sonoma Arts Live (Gypsy, Always Patsy Cline, Hello Dolly). Performances with Lucky Penny Productions, where he is an Associate Artist, include I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change; Big River: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (TBA Award – Featured Actor), Clue: the Musical, Hands on a Hardbody, Annie, The Tasting Room, and Forever Plaid.

Outside of the Bay Area, he was fortunate enough to be a part of the first national tour as Big Anthony in Strega Nona the Musical!, and worked for that production as Associate Technical Director.

 

Danielle DeBow: Danielle grew up on the stage and studied Theatre and Dance at UC Davis. Dancer turned film actress, turned musical theatre enthusiast, she fell in love with the immediacy and fellowship of the theatre.

She was most recently seen as Alice in Bright Star at CCCT and Rebecca in The Tasting Room at Lucky Penny. You may have seen her at Sonoma Arts Live as Irene Malloy in Hello Dolly, Patsy Cline in Always, Patsy Cline (TBA and Marquee Theatre Award), and Louise in Gypsy.

Danielle is proud to be an Associate Artist at Lucky Penny, her home away from home. When she’s not on stage, you’ll likely find her outdoors chasing her one-year-old and fur babies or finding new ways to turn 90s pops song into folk with her hubby.

Michael Scott Wells
Danielle DeBow

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

MW: I’ve always loved to tell stories. My family can regale you with the multitude of puppet shows and make-believe plays I made them sit through as a child. I participated in a number of church plays as well. Then I took a hiatus to focus on sports. All the sports. In high school, a friend asked if I could help stage manage a show he was working on. The bug re-bit me and I never looked back.

DD: I spent much of my childhood on stage dancing. In fourth grade I moved to a new elementary school that focused on learning through musical performance and that is where I fell in love with the art and immediacy of theatre.

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

MW: Miss Saigon in 2005 at Diablo Light Opera Company

DD: The Nutcracker, 1992, Bolshoi West

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

MW: I don’t think I can say just one person or company. Every member of the theater community I’ve had the opportunity to work with has helped shape my life in ways I can truly never thank them enough for.

DD: Many amazing, talented, and compassionate teachers, directors, and crew members have impacted me in ways I’ll be eternally grateful, but I must thank my parents for believing in me and encouraging me to do what I love. They instilled confidence in me that allowed me to pursue opportunities and take risks leading me to where I am today.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

DD: The shutdown has been a great challenge. The theatre is where we go to escape, to fill back up when the world drains us. While we miss our theatre family more than words could ever properly describe, we’ve been able to fill at least some of the void jamming in our living room with our one-year-old.

ASR: How do you envision the future for the theater community?

MW: The arts by nature are innovative and revolutionary, so I have no doubt that while this current situation is extremely disheartening for the community, we will all come out of this stronger, more passionate, and more in-tune with who we are as artists and performers.

This time away from the stage, and more importantly, my theatre family has reaffirmed my true love for it. It’s not something that can be created over a zoom call—it’s the tangible aspects I’m craving: the energy exuding from the audience, the jitters in your stomach pre-show, the rush of joy as the overture starts, the sweaty hugs post-show, and the unforgettable conversations in the wings with cast and crew. I know we will get back to it, and I’m proud of the community and companies that are finding ways to bring opportunities for us to share our craft and stories in new ways while we’re restricted from gathering during the pandemic.

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

DD : While many shows stand out for me, the three shows that top my list are Godspell, Always Patsy Cline, and Bright Star.

MW: Godspell, Big River, and Evil Dead, the Musical.

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

DD: Costumes, without a doubt. I’m in constant awe of the men and women who pour their hearts and souls into the costumes we wear on stage. They’re tasked with near-impossible requests and somehow end up making us look beautiful (or hideous depending on the requirements), period-appropriate, and tailored, all while ensuring our frocks can handle our quick changing, jumping, falling, dancing, and sweating through them.

MW: That’s a tough choice. It’s a toss-up between lighting and sound for me. There’s something about creating the atmosphere of a moment to make not only the audience but the storytellers feel that moment deep in their gut. That’s what excites me.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

DD: Dyan McBride is one of my favorite people to watch on stage. Not to mention, one of the most supportive, humble, and passionate actors to work beside. She’s reliable, devoted, and brings out the best in those around her. Her attention to detail, poise, and comedic timing are impeccable. I aspire to captivate an audience as she can.

MW: It’s been a while since I’ve seen in him in anything, but Joel Roster is truly one of the finest actors I have ever witnessed on stage. I could watch him read the phone book. He is never anything but 100% genuine in everything that he does. I have never laughed harder or felt so deeply than when Joel tells a story.

……. asking a stranger to borrow their popcorn bucket to throw up in.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

DD: My warm-up varies drastically by the show, but once I get a routine, it must not be broken (kidding/not kidding). I always do a few push-ups right before I hit the stage to shake the jitters and get my blood going. Sometimes my opening costume makes this a challenge, but I’ve yet to find one that’s thwarted me. My last two performances were unique in that my pre-show routine also included breastfeeding my newborn backstage. The two companies I had the privilege to work with made it possible for me to continue to pursue my dreams and share the experience with my baby. I will be eternally grateful to Lucky Penny and CCCT for those unforgettable and cherished memories.

MW: Most people will say you’ll catch me cracking jokes right up to the curtain. This is part ploy to hide my nerves and part enjoying the heck out of my job and the people I’m with. I am always nervous before any show, no matter if it’s opening night or closing night. I try to take a moment or two to stretch and get my mind centered. But when it comes down to it, frivolity is truly the best medicine for preparing myself to go on a nightly journey. After a show—that really depends on the show, but it all generally ends with a late-night snack and binging something on Netflix.

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

DD: The cast and crew of Cowgirls at Lucky Penny will forever mean the world to me. The relationships I built during that show continue to enrich my personal and stage life. The theatre became our home. Michael proposed to me there, Barry married us on stage and in real life, and Taylor, Dani, Staci, Dyan, and Heather are some of the most important confidants in my life.

MW: There are many individuals I truly cherish in the theater universe. And while I may not see some of them as often as I’d like right now, the cast/crew of Godspell from a 2014 production will always be in my heart. You’ll never see a group who sweated more, loved harder and supported one another through every trial and tribulation. I can never thank that group of humans enough for the joy and love they brought into my life.

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

MW: During a production of Into the Woods, Little Red missed her entrance for a scene with Jack. In this production, they used a live chicken for Jack to carry around in this scene. This turned into a hilarious 3-4 minute improvised scene between the actor playing Jack and this live chicken. When Little Red finally showed up, out of breath having clearly run from the dressing room, the audience gave Jack a rousing round of applause for his show-stopping improvisation skills.

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

DD: Performing in the wine country comes with its perks, and one of them is often a well-oiled audience. This can make for some wonderful laughs and energetic claps, as well as wine glasses shattering in front of you while singing a tender ballad, or a drunken audience member turning on the house lights while bickering with her partner across the theatre. Yes, that all happened during a single performance.

MW: It’s safe to assume that when you perform in the heart of wine country, most audience members will typically, and hopefully in a responsible fashion, enjoy an adult beverage before coming to the theater. But in some cases, “responsible” can be taken many ways. In one example, it wasn’t just one person but a party bus that decided to over-serve themselves before a show. This resulted in several hilarious moments of call and response, clumsily attempting to leave the theater in the middle of a heartbreaking ballad, and topping off the evening with asking a stranger to borrow their popcorn bucket to throw up in.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

DD/MW: We work as the sales and marketing team for a digital workspace consultancy in Davis, CA.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

MW: I’ve been a musician since I was old enough to hold an instrument. The guitar is my main muse but I can play just about anything if you give me twenty minutes to figure it out.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

DD:  Hmmm….OK…

    1. Chew with your mouth closed.
    2. Be nice.
    3. Chew with your mouth closed. (Yes, I repeated #1; Misophonia made me do it.)

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

DD: Attacked someone for chewing too loudly.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

MW: I am a total thrill-seeker. Who wants to go skydiving?

ASR: Favorite quotes from movies or stage plays?

DD: “Though she be but little, she is fierce.” – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

MW: “May the force be with you.” – Star Wars

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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.

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Getting Down Low on the Low Down with Clay David

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.

***

Hailing from the Creole/Cajun bayous of Louisiana, Clay David has enjoyed a wide-ranging professional career in theatre arts. Spanning London, Broadway, off-Broadway, regional theatre, national tours and educational theatre, his work has embraced advocacy, acting, directing, and design. His achievements in the theater have been recognized with five San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards. David has also earned an AMCO Kennedy Center National Award, the Victor Borge Legacy Award, a TITAN Award for Theatre Excellence (Theatre Bay Area), the Dean Goodman Choice Award for Best Director in San Francisco Bay, the Lee Hartgrave Fame Best Play Award, and the Bravo Award for Outstanding Innovation and Excellence in Arts.

Notable directing highlights: L’ours et la Lune, and Birth of the Son (Off-Broadway, Blue Heron, NYC), Wives as They Were/Maids as They Are (London Theatre Royal, St. Edmunds, Regency Rep), Romeo et Julieta, (Campamento Lomas Pinar, Cuernavaca, Mexico), York 24: The Capmaker’s Play, (Poculi Ludique Societas, Toronto), Trojan Women and Phedre, (Jerry Rojo Environmental Theatre, CT), Learned Ladies, and School for Scandal (Connecticut Repertory Theatre.)

His joy of collaboration is a true passion, directing premiere productions of Ernest Gaines, Luis Alfaro, Gloria Stingily, Savion Glover, Jared Choclat, Chuck Prophet, Felice Picano, Michael Golamco, and Kathyrn McCarty.

On stage, he has performed the title roles in Hamlet, Amadeus, and The Dresser (Connecticut Repertory Theatre), The Elephant Man and Uncle Vanya (Jerry Rojo Environmental Theatre, CT). Regional Shakespeare roles include: Don John in Much Ado About Nothing (Marin Shakespeare), and Troilus in Troilus and Cressida (Riverside Shakespeare, NY). In musical theatre, he has performed Georges in La Cage aux Folles, Frollo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Preacher in Violet (Bay Area Musicals), Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar, and Tobias in Sweeney Todd (Connecticut Repertory Company).

(Editor’s note: His A Cajun Midsummer Night’s Dream at Novato Theater Company was unique, brilliant, amazing, and delightful.)

In educational theater, Clay David has served as professor and lecturer of theater at Loyola Marymount University, The University of Connecticut, Diablo Valley College, and was Chairman of Drama at Contra Costa College.

Clay David

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

CD: I sang in church. In the Southern Gothic Cajun South, High Mass was about as close as you could get to the papacy. I was on the debate team in ninth grade and won a few national titles in dramatic interpretation and poetry reading. I was cast as Cornelius Hackle in Hello Dolly in tenth grade. That opened the door and connected the dots.

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

CD: Performance: Sparger in Kennedy’s Children, Robert Patrick; directing: Welcome to Andromeda, Ronald Melville Whyte

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

CD: I feel like I have been doing this since the earth cooled, so well over a 150.

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

CD: My brother was severely disabled, and I always carry his spirit with me. I always say hello to him in the wings. I know he is an angel looking over me.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas?

CD: The Dutchman, Amiri Baraka; The Dresser, Ronald Harwood; The Blacks, Jean Genet; The Maids, Jean Genet; America Hurrah, Jean-Claude van Itallie; The Visit, Friedrich Dürrenmatt; Suddenly Last Summer, Tennessee Williams; Woysek, Georg Büchner.

ASR: Musicals?

CD: Sweeney Todd, Blood Brothers, Jerry Springer the Opera, Cabaret. Kinky Boots.

ASR: Comedies?

CD: The Bald Soprano, Eugene Ionesco; Tartuffe, Moliere; The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde; Private Lives, Noël Coward.

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

CD: Hamilton.

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

CD: The works of Enrico Cavacchioli, Rosso di San Secondo, Luigi Pirandello, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco. Theatre of the Grotesque and Theatre of the Absurd speak to our times, as we navigate the national discord, the bafflement, and bewilderment of the truth of our times.

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

CD: His plays have dimensions that are not explored or are diluted. Many times these works will be misdirected, or will politely just dance around the ideas of Hamlet asking his mother about the semen-stained sheets, or Ophelia singing pornographic songs when she is mad (who taught her the tunes?) or Richard ll’s historical and factual accuracy of his homosexuality.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

CD: Hamlet. I wish more companies would produce Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II.

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

CD: I was a theatre professor for 20 years and loved teaching design. I adore making properties. But most importantly, I love working with the actors who use each prop I design, ensuring that it is perfect for them and helps the character that they are creating.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance?

CD: I drink a Red Bull, rock catatonically in my chair and suck on a cough drop.

ASR: How do you relax after?

CD: A large bowl of cereal and milk.

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

CD: Always think outside the box. Always take risks. The audience is the most important element of theatre.

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

CD: In that sacred moment when we come together on production we are all soulmates and family. I will always be present for my fellow actors and technicians on stage and backstage, a faithful steward. Whether it is cleaning the dressing rooms, fanning sweating dancers running offstage, picking up costumes after quick changes, or mending shoes in between scene changes, I feel that we are a family, a community with a mighty purpose, and I am there to serve.

…Theatre of the Absurd speaks to our times…

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

CD: Yes. Corporate. Director, Senior Resource Group.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

CD: Maintaining serenity during these troubling times.

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

CD: I am a designer and work closely with hospice and COVID patients, creating art that speaks to their needs and the needs of their families.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

CD: Our island is built on the doctrine of egalitarianism. Believe in reciprocity. Your mood should not dictate your manners.

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

CD: Title: Sugarcane Burning. It would be about my disabled brother, raised by a fragile mother and a queer little brother in the mystic land of the bayou, Cajun South Louisiana.

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

CD: Been there and done that, darling. They’d think, “Hey, y’all, what is it this time?”

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

CD: “J’ai Passé Devant Ta Porte,” the Cajun song we sang as children. “I Believe,” because I love and resonate with a good hymn. “Beautiful Dreamer,” because I played it on the organ and sang it for my mother and brother when times were hard.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

CD: Cufflinks.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

CD: “ Most people’s lives, what are they but trails of debris—each day more debris, more debris . . . long, long trails of debris, with nothing to clean it all up but death.”—Suddenly Last Summer

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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.

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: A Talk-Talk with the Versatile, Vivacious Maureen McVerry

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.

***

Maureen McVerry

Few performers have backgrounds as deep as Maureen McVerry’s. In 1993 she created Verry McVerry, her ever-evolving cabaret show, one she has performed for 25 years. In San Francisco, she has performed at Oasis, Feinstein’s, the New Conservatory Theatre, the Herbst Theatre, the Plush Room, the Venetian Room, the Gateway Theatre, and the Alcazar. Verry McVerry has also been performed at 88s in NYC and the Gardenia Room in LA and at other venues nationally. The show earned a 2012 SFBATCC nomination for Best Solo Show.

As a stage actress, McVerry has celebrated 39 years in theatre, like the legendary Jack Benny. At ACT she played Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion (SFBATCC award), Kitty Packard in Dinner at Eight (SFBATCC award), the Gypsy in Scapin, Carrie in House of Mirth, Mrs. Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol and Sister Gabriella in The Pope and the Witch.

At ACT she also played Mrs. Schlemiel in Schlemiel the First and went on with the show to the ART in Cambridge and the Geffen Playhouse in LA. McVerry was featured as Kay in the SF Shakespeare Festival production of Oh Kay! (SFBATCC award) and in two long-running SF shows, Noises Off (SFBATCC and Dramalogue awards) and Curse of the Werewolf (SFBATCC award). At Marin Theatre Company she has appeared in Side by Side by Sondheim, You’re Going to Love Tomorrow (SFBATCC award), Born Yesterday (SFBATCC award), Room Service, and Me and My Girl.

McVerry has appeared in four different productions of Noises Off and would gladly do that show once or twice weekly to stay in shape. At 42nd St Moon she has appeared in several shows: Pardon My English (SFBATCC award), High Spirits, Wildcat, Very Warm for May, and Student Gypsy. She directed the successful 2011 revival of Oh Kay! and appeared at TheatreWorks as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Ernest, Sylvia in Learned Ladies of Park Avenue, and Jack’s Mother in Into the Woods.

She played Clara in Sex at the Aurora Theatre, and at Center Rep performed in the hit musicals Bingo and Xanadu – her first Shelly nomination as Calliope. In 2014 at SF Playhouse, she reprised her role as Jack’s Mother in Into the Woods, which she plays 24/7 (her son’s name is Jack).

In October of 2014 Maureen’s husband of 32 years, Rick Alber (Dr. Rom on KGO radio) died unexpectedly from an unsuccessful heart operation. After a break, she slowly went back to work.

She did her new solo show Love Will Kick Your Ass at Oasis and at Feinstein’s. She made her drag king debut as Mr. Roper in Three’s Company Live at Oasis. She returned to Center Rep and played Georgette in It Shoulda Been You (Shelly nomination) and to 42nd St Moon, where she played Pauline in No No Nanette. At TheatreWorks she played Marge in The Bridges of Madison County, and at SF Playhouse played the Old Lady in Sunday in the Park With George.

In 2018 she played Linda Porter in the one-woman show, Love Linda at Cinnabar Theatre in Petaluma. She is the winner of seven SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards and two Dramalogue Awards. McVerry’s film credits include Nine Months, The Dead Pool, Big Business, True Believer, Howard the Duck, The Ox and the Eye, and Crackers. On TV: Full House and Divorce Court.

For the last 10 summers, McVerry has hosted the “very” successful Maureen McVerry’s Musical Theatre Camp for children and teens. The camp’s motto is “Where children learn to play on and off the stage.”

Since 2001, she has directed 27 student theatre productions at public schools on the Peninsula. Since Rick’s passing, she directs one middle school musical a year at North Star Academy in Redwood City.

__________________

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

MM: Halfway through my junior year of college, I was a little lost, so I dropped out and lived in Europe and the San Juan Islands and had a lot of fun. Not finishing what I had started bugged me though so in 1980 I returned to Cal to graduate (I recommend taking a few gap years to anyone else who might be lost).

Since I had completed almost all of my requirements, I knew I could really explore what the school offered. Amazingly, my father suggested that I “try drama” (What parent suggests that??). I enrolled in Drama 10, my first acting class, and was completely swept away. For the final five quarters at Cal, I appeared in several shows and completed my degree in history.

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

MM: The summer before I graduated from Cal, in 1980, I was in The Three Penny Opera at the Goodman Building on Geary with the incredible Jayne Dornacker as Jenny Diver. It ran for the whole summer! I even got paid a small stipend and was in heaven. In the ensemble, I played a beggar and a whore. My mother was thrilled. A few years later I played Polly Peachum at the Eureka Theatre with the late fabulous Sigrid Wurschmidt as Jenny Diver.

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

MM: Too many to count, but maybe 50+? In one show in the 80s, I performed in the parking garage of the Oakland Museum. Maureen McVerry, LLC—still going strong since 19-*cough cough.*

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

MM: That’s hilarious since I always tell people that by choosing theatre over film as my favorite pursuit, I took a “vow of poverty.”

However, I joined Equity and SAG back in the 80s and due to my longevity in the business, I can count on a pension from both of my unions. Fight for the union!

I should add that I married someone who was not in the business, which gave me the opportunity to have two children and own a house—really tough for a theatre actor.

ASR: Do you have a special focus, i.e., genre/historical period, contemporary, experimental, emerging playwrights, etc?

MM: Happily, I have worked in films (feature and industrial), commercials, bad TV (Divorce Court), a sitcom filmed in front of a live audience (Full House), big expensive shows with fabulous costumes and tiny little shows where you wear your own clothes, weird experimental theatre, comedies, dramas, musicals and most recently, a “clown opera.”

Every few years I also put together a solo cabaret show and that is always a blast. Being in the same room as the audience is without a doubt my favorite way to work.

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

MM: My late husband Rick Alber, (who never appeared on stage) had the greatest impact on my life as an actor. In 1982 I met him and he was my opening night date for 32 wonderful years. Rick loved theatre and during the rehearsal and performance process, he was my special advisor and gave me tons of tips to polish my performances.

After he died in 2014, one of my biggest fears was actually that my performances would fall apart without his second set of eyes to notice things and ask questions. However, 32 years of his advice was deeply rooted so even without his presence, I’ve managed to get the job done.

Luckily I have also worked with directors who create great work.

ASR: With the ongoing coronavirus crisis, it will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How are you coping with the shutdown?

MM: I’m heartbroken. Before COVID, my 2020 was really filled with upcoming work. Pajama Game at 42nd St Moon was canceled almost immediately as it was set to go into rehearsal in late March. Following Pajama Game, I was supposed to have three weeks off and then start rehearsals at SF Playhouse for Follies by Stephen Sondheim, scheduled to run all summer.

Last fall and winter I thought that my summer 2020 would be filled with an exhausting eight-shows-a-week schedule. Hopefully, next spring 42nd St Moon will mount Pajama Game (I’m cast as Mabel) and if I’m lucky, SF Playhouse will mount Follies in 2021. In that show, I am cast as Phyllis. Fingers crossed.

…the audience almost vomited with laughter.

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

MM: What coming seasons? The theatre world is devastated as the floor just fell out. Everyone is just trying to figure out what is next. And not only what, but when? As a singer, I am especially crushed. It was devastating to read that singing with other people is the worst possible activity to pursue. Wow. My favorite thing to do is the last thing I should be doing— that hurts.

ASR: How do you envision the future for the theater community overall?

MM: Gosh, I wish I had a crystal ball for that question. My vision for everything is filled with hope because I believe hope is contagious. I hope and pray that someone smarter than me can create a vaccine soon and we can return to a world that is different, but hopefully closer to what we had than what we have now. During “normal” times, I am not really sure if anyone noticed their activities. We just called it “life.”

More than anything I miss sitting in the dark and laughing like a hyena and/or crying like a baby, surrounded by strangers having a similar experience. Who’da thunk that would be taken away? Back before this—especially with that guy in the White House—we were worried about a missile from North Korea or Russia invading some country but instead what we got was far worse. 150,000 Americans have died. That fact makes me weep.

Financial problems are already wreaking havoc on theatre companies everywhere and I worry that some won’t make it to the new post-COVID world. Trying to save money as people readjust, shows will probably be scaled back. Elaborate sets and costumes will be gone.

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected you?

MM: Luckily, as a member of an acting union, I am always paid.

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

MM: Favorite dramas: Oslo, Uncle Vanya, Angels in America, great productions of plays by Arthur Miller and Tennesee Williams. Center Rep did The Diary of Anne Frank last season and it was brilliant. I saw the filmed version of The Lehman Trilogy—amazing. Sunday in the Park with George makes me cry all the time. I have so many good plays filling my brain now I have to stop listing shows.

Comedies: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw and The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Noises Off is my favorite comedy from the 20th century. So far, in four different productions, I have played two of the three roles I am eligible for. Hopefully, another production is in my future.

ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays? Care to share titles of those you would never produce—or never produce again?

MM: Anything by Dario Fo.

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

MM: Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw.

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

MM: It would have to be costumes. Twenty-some years ago I was recruited to re-mount the middle school musical at my children’s elementary school.

Twenty-two shows later I’m still at it and am still amazed at the joy I experience at costume time. As the director, I have to teach children and parents about how to create a show. I tell my parent volunteers that a costume should do half of the work for the actor. As soon as an actor enters the stage, the audience should have a good idea of who that character is.

Coming up with the perfect costume is so rewarding. Plus, if you do costumes, once the show opens, you can sit out front and watch.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

MM: Dan Hiatt.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

MM: In a musical, I love it when the music director runs a group warm-up. I never miss one. It gives the actors a chance to connect in their street clothes and also share some air together.

Being super superstitious, I have a personal pre-show ritual that I never miss as well.

Afterward, I go home to walk my beloved dogs. Being in a show can be quite exhausting so afterward, I try to take care of myself. To handle the stress of tech weeks and openings which made my eyeballs twitch, I started meditating again (I hadn’t for 25+ years), and ba-bam! my twitch went away.

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

MM: For the last twenty years I have taught my hundreds of student actors the three rules my college director Louise Mason taught me:

1. Be on time, ready to work at the start of rehearsal—not running in the door with a cup of coffee, but ready to work.

2. Do not talk when the director is talking.

3. When the director gives you a note, write it down, review the note before the next rehearsal. And never, I repeat, never make a director give you the same note twice.

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

MM: Three people in my life fit this category:

In 2005 I was in my first production of Into the Woods at TheatreWorks as Jack’s Mother. The actor playing the Baker was Jackson Davis. During rehearsals, we discovered that we were born on the exact same day (but luckily for me, he’s two hours older). In 2010, we commuted from the Peninsula to SF Playhouse together to do a groovy musical, Coraline. That’s when we truly bonded.

2. The “Arbiter of Taste and Fashion,” my friend Lawrence Helman, is a man about town, publicist, writer, and the most opinionated person I know. Also smart and funny with a razor-sharp memory. If you need to get the word out, call Lawrence.

3. In 1990 I met a director named Rick Simas. He found songs for me, directed my solo shows, and has made think and laugh for 30 years. Way back, after getting a Ph.D. at Cal, he left the Bay Area and taught at SD State for years but hopefully he will move back here soon. Great ideas, plus an encyclopedic memory on shows, songs, and theatre. He directed my solo shows in 2017 and 2019. They were quite entertaining thanks to Rick.

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

MM: There were a million screw-ups in runs of Noises Off but one of the best involved me and Dan Hiatt. His character was tugging a phone cord—the bit was the cord would come back without the mouthpiece. One night the cord returned like normal but zinged all over the stage and ended up caught in my hair. So I was actually attached to the phone offstage.

The audience almost vomited with laughter. I could have lost an eye but it was hilarious.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

MM: Once an actor missed an entrance in Noises Off and we stopped the show for the amount of time it took another cast member to run offstage and through the dressing rooms to get the actor off the pot and then into her costume to finally make her entrance and move on with the story.

Luckily I didn’t have to attempt bad improv since my character was “meditating.” Shockingly, my friends at the show didn’t notice the four-minute pause in act two!

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

MM: After a matinee of Two Gentlemen of Verona at San Jose Rep, the cast went back out for a post-show discussion. While asking a question, an audience member said the title of the “Scottish Play” out loud. We all reacted with horror since it is supposed to bring such bad luck upon the theatre.

That night during the evening show, an enormous sandbag fell thirty feet to the stage with a huge boom.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

MM: My career as a children’s theatre director could be considered my day job.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

MM: Politics, baseball, reading, gardening, tap dancing, boogie boarding, and making the world more fabulous.

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

MM: I belong to all the museums and try to see as much as possible. For a time I painted portraits of dogs and landscapes but my passion pooped out. Guess I just need to get my paints out.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

MM: Say yes. Be kind. No whining.

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

MM: Another Trump?

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

MM: Soup, a show set in a soup kitchen: the banter and dynamics of the volunteers with an opportunity to share the stories of guests so people learn more about the daily life of people experiencing homelessness. Comedy plus drama—a dramedy!

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

MM: Before this gosh darn pandemic I was looking forward to flying to DC and getting arrested with Jane Fonda and others to protest the lack of attention paid to climate change. It would be an honor to wear handcuffs for that. Wish me luck. In March, my son was evacuated from Lesotho after serving in the Peace Corps. He’s been with me but soon he plans to return to DC to live and work. Therefore soon I have another excuse to go to DC besides getting arrested.

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

MM: First I’d say, “If I Loved You,” from Carousel. Makes me cry

Then, “All Kinds Of Time, by Fountains of Wayne. It’s a perfect story song. Our family sang it at Rick’s memorial in 2014.

Finally, “Danny Boy.” It also makes me cry. And more importantly, it reminds me of my childhood and how much my parents loved that song.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

MM: Scarves.

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

MM: Terrifying thought to have anything that big around. Yikes! A cockapoo the size of a horse? I don’t want anything that big— not even horses!

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

MM: I go river rafting once a summer and that fulfills my need for thrills.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

MM: “Never give up. Never surrender.” —Galaxy Quest

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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.

 

ASR Not So Random Question Time — Going Downtown Dramaturgy with Cal Shakes’ Amazing Phillipa Kelly

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.

***

When describing the role of a dramaturg, Dr. Philippa Kelly says this: “Whatever can make a production deeper and richer and more ambiguous and interpretively challenging – that is the goal of my activities as a dramaturg.”

Since encountering Shakespeare at age fourteen, she’s become the first woman in history to prepare a public edition of King Lear and has published eleven books, including three on King Lear, one of the most recent being The King and I, which is a meditation on dispossession through the twin lenses of King Lear and Australian culture. In April 2020, with Amrita Ramanan as Associate Editor, Kelly published Diversity, Inclusion, and Representation in Contemporary Dramaturgy: Case Studies from the Field (Routledge).

She’s also educated students and audiences about Shakespeare in schools, prisons, and at the California Shakespeare Theater. As an Australian-American she has a unique perspective on how identity, social justice, and dramaturgy can be woven together throughout the creative process of theatre-making.

Philippa Kelly

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

PK: I came to America as a Fulbright Scholar at UC Berkeley. Then I came back as a Rockefeller Scholar some years later. So I had trained to be, and was practicing as, a scholar/teacher.

Discovering dramaturgy made it all make sense – I would never go back to academe full-time. Dramaturgy makes knowledge live. Being Dramaturg for the California Shakespeare Theater has been the greatest professional joy of my life.

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

PK: Quite a lot: Cal Shakes, of course; and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival; the Play On festival; the Aurora; Word for Word; the Berkeley Repertory Theater; A UC production of Midsummer, and another UC production, totally student-led, in which the theme was “Glitter Macbeth” in honor of the director’s fascination with Mariah Carey. The student playing Macbeth was an athlete who had never acted before, and I taught him to walk like a soldier by putting sandbags on his feet.

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

PK: The California Shakespeare Theater of course has Shakespeare as its core, with Shakespeare’s incredible capacity to lay bare, and make us stare into the heart of human paradox. But under Jon Moscone’s vision, we began doing two Shakespeares and two other classics (Shaw, Wilde, Chekhov) per season; and under the leadership of Eric Ting, the company has moved more into New Classics – with the idea that while Shakespeare is a touchstone, the two (Shakespeare and the creation of New Works) can feed each other.

I’d say there is not a single artist I’ve met from whom I didn’t learn something, even if I didn’t see it at the time.

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

PK: The greatest influence in my professional life has really been Professor Stephen Greenblatt. Way before I became a dramaturg, it was his work that taught me to think dramaturgically – how we live, with all of our paradox, in this human world. Another great influence has been Curt Tofteland of Shakespeare Behind Bars – the way in which Curt brings the words of Shakespeare to reach places for which there has been so much hurt but may have been little language.

And one of my dearest inspirations is set designer Annie Smart. She has the eye of a designer and the mind of a dramaturg. When I prepare my actor packets (I write a fresh, 20-page actor packet for every show), I send them to Annie, and she grades the draft from A+ to B-!!! I’ve also been inspired by Eric Ting (we have already adapted four plays together into one – that takes some trust!) and Joel Sass, an amazingly original director, who is so thorough that there is almost nothing for me to do!

There are so many artists who have inspired me – actress/director Joy Carlin (her famous comment: “Don’t worry darling – it’s only theater”), playwright Marcus Gardley, director Ian Belknap, musician/performer/writer Rinde Eckert, writer/actress Ellen McLaughlan, dramaturg Lue Douthit (she says “Theater is a journey from emotion to emotion.”).

I’d say there is not a single artist I’ve met from whom I didn’t learn something, even if I didn’t see it at the time. And theater historian Liz Schafer – we have known and worked together on and off for 20 years. If you are looking for a fascinating book of interviews with women directing Shakespeare, look for her 1997 book, MsDirecting Shakespeare.

I think my dearest, deepest, most combative artistic relationship is with my husband Paul Dresher. He is a composer, presenter, and producer. Sometimes in response to his critiques I want to throw him down the toilet – but I know that when I cool down I’ll be so grateful for the light he shines into my work with his brilliant mind.

ASR: Have the coronavirus crisis and ongoing social upheaval affected your company and your work?

PK: The virus has decimated theaters everywhere. Cal Shakes has been doing a huge amount of work with Black Lives Matter and anti-racist activism. As for myself, every week I record a 12-minute video in a series we call “Run the Canon.” (https://calshakes.org/cal-shakes-online/run-the-canon/)

By the end of the year, we will have recorded videos for every play in Shakespeare’s canon. And this coming Tuesday (July 28th) I’m interviewing supreme Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World, The Swerve, and Tyrant. This will be followed by a ten-week course on five Shakespeare plays, which I’ll run every week. (https://calshakes.org/learn/shakespeare-in-depth-with-philippa-kelly/)

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

PK: Whenever I sit down with a box of tissues to watch The Sound of Music, my husband Paul says, “Oh, OK. I’ll sit upstairs and start filling out the divorce papers.”

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most under-rated play? Why?

PK: I think The Comedy of Errors. I was about to work on it with the wonderful director Jessica Holt for Cal Shakes this season when Covid struck. It’s under-rated because people often see it as just a light comedy, but it is also a deep meditation on the mysteries of identity. Who are we? There’s so little time to find out. When we look at, or listen to, another person, we very often see what is inside our own heads rather than what is there in front of us. Look at how people saw Hilary Clinton – or didn’t see her. And so we got stuck with the orange nightmare. Misrecognition, mis-seeing, misunderstanding—these are key to the lightness and darkness of The Comedy of Errors.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

PK: Midsummer – I’ve dramaturged it four times.

ASR: Who do you think is the most amazing Bay Area actor?

PK: Honestly there are so many. I revere them. But if I had to name one who did something I’ve never seen before, it would be Patty Gallagher. We had had Marcia Mason cast as Winnie in our 2009 production of Beckett’s Happy Days. Marcia left after ten days, Patty came in, and she played the most beautiful Winnie I could ever imagine. She had only ten days to prepare, and that role comprises almost the whole play, and it is full of non-sequiturs. Still today when I think of Patty’s Winnie, tears come to my eyes. I love that play so much. Her performance was pitch-perfect.

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

PK: Hmm. Quite a question…

1: Ask “Why are we performing this play, at this time, for this audience, in this place?” You need to feel the pulse of the present moment and be incredibly specific in that feeling.

2: Be prepared to draw from a deep well of knowledge, but do not expect to share, or volunteer, the whole of that well unless you want the director to hit you over the head with a chair. [Editor’s Note: Oh, sooo very true! — KN]

3: Don’t feel that you have to know everything – you can look it up. It’s the thirst for knowledge that makes a great dramaturg.

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

PK: I saw a Romeo and Juliet at OSF where Romeo sent the knife flying and poor Juliet had to stab herself without it.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

PK: I am a writer and an educator. I run a community Shakespeare group; I run a theater appreciation group (you can contact me about either class –they run in separate terms all year long – on philippakellydresher@gmail.com); and I am proud to be Chair and Professor of English at the California Jazz Conservatory under the directorship of Susan Muscarella.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

PK: I love to swim, read, walk my chihuahuas, and to sit in the Australian morning sun with my family or friends, drinking “flat whites.”

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

PK: I follow music, of course – The Paul Dresher Ensemble! John Adams.

I love photographer Richard Misrach’s work.

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

PK: A colonoscopy prep kit.

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

PK: An amoeba.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

PK: My beloved brother died rock climbing, so I’m not too much into risky sports. But I do love looking at the works of friends of mine who are photographers (Richard Misrach, Debbie O’Grady), painters (Naomie Kremer), authors (Richard Zimler), musicians (Paul Dresher, John Adams) and being awed in the presence of this fact: that when artists make their work, the act is as risk-taking as that of any explorer who has forged ahead even though they might fall off the edge of the world.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

PK: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry” – NOT!!! Love means being ABLE to say you’re sorry!

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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.

 

ASR Not-So-Random Question Time: Could He Get Even Busier? Actor/Director Extraordinaire Aldo Billingslea

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.

***

Aldo Billingslea is the Father William J. Rewak S. J., Professor of Theatre Arts at Santa Clara University. A member of Actors Equity Association and the Screen Actors Guild, Billingslea has appeared in numerous theatrical productions in the Bay Area and across the country.

With Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company he gave an astounding powerful performance in Dry Powder, a production that won near-unanimous critical acclaim.

Billingslea resides in Santa Clara with Renee Billingslea, his visual-artist wife who also teaches at Santa Clara University, and Trinity, their daughter, who is captain of the Santa Clara Bronco rowing team.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

AB: I thought it would help me get kissed by women. I was in 7th grade.

I did not get my first stage kiss until I was a sophomore in college. And then it was on the cheek.

ASR: How many theaters have you been involved with?

AB: Not including the theaters where I have acted, I’m currently on the board of the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and the Marin Theatre Company. I’m an associate producer and ambassador for PlayGround. I’ve served on the board of Renegade Theatre and Playground and on the advisory board for Gritty City Youth Repertory Theatre. I have participated in the Artistic Director searches for Marin Theatre Company, the Aurora Theatre, and TheatreWorks. I’m over-involved.

ASR: What was your first paying theatrical gig?

AB: It was the Jones and Schmidt musical Celebration! I played Potemkin. It was summer of 1984 in a converted barn theater in the hill country of Texas, at a place called Mo Ranch.

ASR: Who has had the biggest influence on your career?

AB: There are a ton of people who contributed to the development of my professional career! Apart from my wife Renee, one of the most significant would be my college professor Dr. Barbara Means Fraser. She directed me a few times in college, encouraged me to audition for graduate school, and after I graduated with those degrees, encouraged me to go to Ashland. She then helped me work my way to Santa Clara University where I’ve been teaching for the last 22 years.

……theatrical Zoom work is new and creative!

ASR: How has the coronavirus shutdown affected you?

AB: I may actually be busier since the shutdown. Not commuting to theaters means the opportunity to work with more of them. Our Juneteenth Theatre Justice Project was created in collaboration with PlayGround, the Lorraine Hansberry, and Planet Earth Arts, and forty other Bay Area theatres, plus twenty more theatres across the country to read Vincent Terrell Durham’s Polar Bears, Black Boys, and the Prairie Fringed Orchid.

It was thrilling and led us to launch the Black Theater fundraiser, an initiative to fund black theaters around the country. They are hurting partly because of COVID-19 and because black theater isn’t properly funded. 

COVID-19 canceled several gigs for me, the most painful of which was Lauren Gunderson’s Book of Will at TheatreWorks, which would’ve allowed me to appear in the last play directed by Robert Kelley as artistic director and be on the stage again with Jim Carpenter, Jennifer Le Blanc, Francis Jue, Rebecca Dines, Mark Anderson Phillips, Jackson Davis and a host of other fabulous actors.

Jennifer Le Blanc and I were supposed to do another Othello at Pacific Repertory Theatre—we had done it at Marin Shakespeare in 2004—so after 16 years later I should be better. Jennifer and I were also supposed to do Death and the Maiden together, also at Pacific Rep. However, had I been engaged in those productions, I wouldn’t have been able to participate in the great collaboration for Polar Bears, Black Boys, and the Prairie Fringed Orchid, or participated in the black theater fund. So the Lord does work in mysterious ways!

ASR: What’s the worst aspect of the shutdown for you?

AB: Losing the immediacy of being in a theater, and relating to human beings without the separation of a screen. It is invaluable and sorely missed! However, this theatrical Zoom work is new and creative. It’s going to send us into a new realm and a new burst of exploration as people try to find ways to harvest the potential.

ASR: What are some of your favorite plays?

AB: Othello and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Give me August Wilson and William Shakespeare and I’d be good for a while. Also, I love Marcus Gardley’s Black Odyssey and Sarah Burgess’ Dry Powder, Lynn Nottage’s Ruined, and Lauren Gunderson’s Book of Will and I am so very very taken by Polar Bears, Black Boys, and the Prairie Fringed Orchid that I’m directing it at Santa Clara University this fall!

ASR: A favorite quote?

AB: “I believe in the American theatre. I believe in its power to inform about the human condition, and its power to heal.” – August Wilson

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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.

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time with Legendary Gentleman Squire George Maguire

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.

***

George Maguire

 

Among a handful of Bay Area theater people with astoundingly deep credentials, George Maguire has enjoyed a 52-year professional career spanning Broadway, Off-Broadway, regional theater, the National company of Nicholas Nickelby and more than thirty feature films.

He was Artistic Director of Solano College Theater for eighteen years, directing fifty main stage plays and musicals and helming the school’s renown Actor Training Program.

A couple of years ago, Maguire joined the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle as an adjunct member and voraciously continues to see and critique as many theater and film productions as possible.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

GM: I began in high school, first in Wilmington, Delaware in the chorus of both Brigadoon and Carousel where I had my first line: “Hey Nettie, ya burnin’ the lemonade?” Then we moved to Pittsburgh PA and it all ramped up quickly.

In one month, I played Freddy Eynesford Hill in My Fair Lady, graduated, went to prom, and got my AEA card at seventeen in Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera’s Top Banana with Phil Silvers, Mr. President with Vivian Blaine and the rest of the originals, Tovarich with Ginger Rogers, South Pacific with Georgio Tozzi and Elizabeth Allen (I met Richard Rogers when he came to see her in that show and then cast her in Do I Hear a Waltz?), and My Fair Lady in the ensemble. Quite a feat for a seventeen-year-old who couldn’t read a lick of music and knew only one audition song — yep, one — “On the Street Where You Live.

The choreographer of our high-school My Fair Lady was a major pro who worked with John Kenley and suggested that I and two others should audition for Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. We all got in! I did the next five seasons, going from second tenor to baritone-bass. I returned twice to Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera—in 1979 as Asst. Director and actor, and in 1981 as Max in The Sound of Music opposite John Shuck and Maureen McGovern.

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

GM: The first play as a director was Matchmaker at my old high school where I returned for four years as a teacher.

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

GM: Hundreds. Literally.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

GM: I formed Solano College Theater (SCT) in 1990 with Managing Director Dave Leonard. I retired from it seven years ago.

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

GM: I took the advice of one of my great mentors when I founded SCT —  Hire people who do what they do better than you can and then do what you do superbly. I hired actors and teachers like Nancy and Joy Carlin, Ken Sonkin, Bob Parsons, Julian Lopez Morillos, Carla Spindt, L. Peter Callender, and Sacramento’s Christine and Luther Hanson. Jon Tracy was a student then along with Johnny Moreno.

I brought in friends like Tom Hanks to do a major fundraiser. Writer José Rivera and Dave Leonard produced José ‘s first big hit House of Ramon Iglesia ( I had its initial readings at Ensemble Studio Theater in New York City.) I brought in guest lecturers like Meryl Shaw from ACT. It was a magical time.

I have an aversion to any play that must ask and answer at the first production meeting “What is your concept?”

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

GM: I’d have to say Vincent Dowling who was Artistic Director of the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival. (He also mentored both Rivera and Hanks.) His testament to enormous insight is that all of us are still dear friends since 1978.

Then I would say Olympia Dukakis in the brief semester I had with her at NYU. She was brutally tough and honest and I had no clue until years later how influential she was. Whatever moments of truth I have had both on film and on stage, I owe to her.

ASR: What are some of your favorite plays? Musicals?

GM: Plays: Cherry Orchard, The Visit, Richard II, A Streetcar Named Desire, A Long Day’s Journey into Night, All My Sons, Angels in America. Musicals: Sweeney Todd, South Pacific, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Cabaret (I’ve directed all three versions), and, well, so many more.

Faves that I produced and directed at Solano College Theater: Equus, The Elephant Man, Distracted, Eurydice, among others. They are my children.

ASR: And your least favorites?

GM: Least fave? Long ago I recognized I had no real interest in directing Shakespeare and indeed have directed only Calarco’s Romeo and Juliet for New Conservatory Theatre Center (NCTC.)

Let others do it! I have an aversion to any play that must ask and answer at the first production meeting “What is your concept?”

I have done conceptual work: Sweeney Todd I set in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors for example; and Equus, in the ruins of the Parthenon, but direct Shakespeare? Not me. Although to be completely open, I have done maybe twenty-some Shakespeare roles as an actor.

I’m often challenged as a director by musicals that flopped. Seussical I resurrected and completely re-thought. I had a blast!!

ASR: Can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

GM: Has to be Jim Carpenter. So honest and real and kind!

ASR: Which theater friendships mean the most to you?

GM: Our friendships are vital but they do not always continue post-production. Those from the Great Lakes era have lasted more than forty years, with two Oscars for one, and an Oscar nomination for the other.

What is true about this is that for all of us the person we met way back when is the treasure we love and success is measured by compassion, not by a resumé.

ASR: What advice would you give to someone who wanted to be your apprentice and learn all that you know?

GM: Hmm. Tricky. OK, here goes…

1. Be true to yourself, and enter the workspace always with an idea.

2. Always breathe before you answer a question.

3. Research! Research! Research!

ASR: What are your interests outside the theater?

GM: I am a major museum freak. I love them, having studied art when I spent a year in Germany at nineteen. Also, opera and symphony. In Germany, I heard Schwartzkopf sing Der Rosenkavalier, for example. I am not a big contemporary music person, probably due to my hearing impairment.

ASR: What would be the worst “buy one get one free” deal?

GM: A ticket to Dude, the Musical! I was there on opening night. Oy!

ASR: If you could create a 30-minute TV series what would it be?

GM: It would definitely be about Great Lakes days in a format like Schitz Creek.

ASR: Care to mention a favorite song?

GM: Having had health issues all my life — hearing impairment, Meniere’s Syndrome, etc, I resonate to “Being Alive.”

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk-taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

GM: I would never parachute, climb a mountain, etc. Fuck, I’m 73! Walking on stage while having a vertigo attack is risk enough for me.

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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.

 

 

ASR’s Not-So-Random Questions for Theater People: Marvelous Musical Theater Maven Rita Abrams

Rita Abrams

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.

***

A native of Cleveland, Ohio — she was a high school classmate of KQED’s Michael Krasny — Rita Abrams launched her career in 1970 when her novelty song “Mill Valley” stormed its way up the charts.

At a time of great social and political upheaval—not unlike today—the song was a breath of fresh air among nonstop sermons about war, racism, poverty, and environmental destruction. With its success, Abrams went from being a local grade-school teacher to instant fame, guest-starring on “Hollywood Squares” and dating prominent entertainers.

50 years later she is still going strong, continuing to pen some of the cleverest tunes ever created.

Recipient of two Emmy’s and multiple SFBATCC nominations and awards, Abrams is perhaps best known for her long-running Marin County spoof For Whom the Bridge Tolls (a collaboration with Stan Sinberg) and many musicals, including Pride and Prejudice, scheduled for May 2021 at Ross Valley Players. Among friends, she’s known as the quickest wit in the west.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

RA: I wrote poems and songs all my life, starting with family musical sagas.

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

RA: My first paid performance was singing “Bell Bottom trousers, coat a navy blue” when I was three. The neighbors paid me ten cents apiece. As an adult, I made a musical out of a quirky little love triangle play written by a TV comedy writer friend which ran in a little SF theatre.

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

RA: My stage musicals have been produced by fifteen theatre companies. I’ve also composed for various children’s media and educational companies . . . maybe twenty-five companies altogether.

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

RA: My mother, who introduced me to the work of all the great musical theatre composers and lyricists, and many lesser known ones as well. The Cleveland public schools took us regularly to great theatre and concerts, and my parents took me to New York to see Broadway shows.

ASR: What are some of your favorite dramas?

RA: Intimidating question but I’ll try: Raisin in the Sun, Private Lives, Our Town, Fences, Bad Jews . . . and then there’s Shakespeare and too many more to mention.

ASR: Musicals? Comedies?

RA: All of Rogers & Hammerstein, Fiddler on the Roof, The Music Man, The Fantasticks, And the World Goes Round (Kander & Ebb Revue), Hamilton, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Lost in Yonkers, The Heidi Chronicles, The Sisters Rosensweig.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

RA: George Maguire.

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

RA: Regarding songwriting:

1. Write lyrics you can easily speak, as in conversation.

2. Build as the song progresses—Save the biggest, funniest, or most moving for last, and don’t be too repetitive or derivative. Keep introducing new ideas or twists.

3. With comedy songs—never give away the punchline, especially in the title, and when possible, end with a surprise.

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

RA: Very tough question, as I love so many of the actors and musicians (and even a few collaborators) I’ve worked with. But when I asked a great bass player friend—Jack Prendergast—if he knew any conductor/synthesizer players for Just My TYPE, a 2018 Ross Valley Players musical, he surprised me by saying he could do the job. He worked so hard on all aspects of the music that he won my heart. We’re still together, and still working together on music.

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

RA: The wacky satirical musical revue about Marin County, For Whom the Bridge Tolls, that I co-created and produced with Stan Sinberg, from 1994 to 2005, was filled with unscripted goofs and gaffes. One night during the sketch, The Overpasses of Marin County (a parody of The Bridges of Madison County), Frank Brown, as photographer for “Dangerous Exits Magazine,” while passionately embracing Sharon Boucher as “Francesca,” caught her long black wig in his belt buckle, where it hung amid gales of laughter from the audience. For two actors who knew how to ham it up, this was their moment. The hilarity went on and on.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

RA: When an actress in one of my shows forgot the lyrics to her solo, and sang the same verse twice in a row, she, a tough one, dismissed it as no big deal—but I was mortified, fearing the audience would think that was how I wrote the song!

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

RA: I was playing piano for a show at San Francisco’s Improv Comedy Club, when in the middle of a scene, a disheveled figure ambled up to the stage and started riffing. A rumble arose from the audience, turning to a roar as they realized who it was—Robin Williams!

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

RA: Not one day job, but revolving freelance gigs—like B.C. (Before Covid) writing scripts for Gregangelo’s Velocity Entertainment shows, and I’m a longtime writer of greeting cards, which is fortunately pandemic-proof.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

RA: All forms of entertainment: Scrabble, Zoom Fictionary, watching the horror unfolding on MSNBC, and now trying to plan some kind of virtual commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of our Miss Abrams & the Strawberry Point School Third Grade Class “Mill Valley” record release. And keeping in touch with family, like my daughter in LA.

When an actress in one of my shows forgot the lyrics to her solo, and sang the same verse twice in a row

ASR: Do you follow other arts—music, film, dance, painting/sculpture?

RA: Truthfully, while I’m interested in everything, I’m usually focused on my original music and theatre creations.

ASR: Do you actively do any other arts apart from theater?

RA: Just the artifice of pretending not to age.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

RA: 1. Enforced Social Distancing between Democrats and Republicans. 2. Twenty minutes of daily laugh therapy before rising. 3. No fitbits.

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

RA: Canned tripe, or dinner with the current president. Not necessarily in that order.

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

RA: “Where Have I Been All My Life?” features real senior citizens confessing their one big regret, and then, through the magic of technology, being able to reverse and redo it, for all the world to see.

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

RA: Been mistaken for someone more interesting.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

RA: Sequined mask.

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

RA: A butterfly.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

RA: Just reading the names gives me heart palpitations.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

RA:

1. From Just My TYPE (book by Charlotte Jacobs & Michael Sally): “I can change him AFTER we get married.”

2. From For Whom the Bridge Tolls: “Between my mani-pedi, my Shiatsu massage, my Bickram Yoga, and my Zumba class…I have NO time for ME!!”

ASR: Theatrical event you are most looking forward to?

RA: The Ross Valley Players production of Josie Brown’s and my Pride and Prejudice Musical from May 13th to June 13th, 2021. Phoebe Moyer will direct the great lineup of talent already we’ve already cast.

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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.

 

ASR Not-So-Random Question Time! The Very Model of a Modern Major Talent — Ron Severdia

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.

***

Ron Severdia

Actor, magician, and tech entrepreneur Ron Severdia may be the most diverse theatrical talent in the North Bay. His solo performance of A Christmas Carol is a must-see. Last year he won critical acclaim for his performance in Every Brilliant Thing at Left Edge Theatre. He found time in his busy schedule to chat with ASR.

ASR: Your background?

RS: I was born and raised (mostly) in Marin County. I started as a magician when I was around seven and got into theatre shortly after. I’ve been performing on stage and in film ever since.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

RS: I started doing magic when I was young and I was a voracious reader. I read everything about Houdini I could get my hands on. Houdini told a story of where he got his name—a magician he admired named Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin, who famously said “A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” This fascinated my young mind and began my jump into the world of acting.

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

RS: My first acting gig was a film, not a play. My fifth grade teacher was teaching about the Revolutionary War and working with our class to product a film. The story was an old man and his wife who’d lived through the war telling their grandchildren about it through flashbacks. I was the old man with old makeup and all. There was a big night where the whole school, including parents and teachers, came to watch the film. This was my big debut, but I was sick that day and my parents wouldn’t let me go. To this day, I’ve never seen that film, but when I went back to school I heard how “amazing” my performance was.

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

RS: Dozens. In the Bay Area, London, Prague, and various other places.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

RS: I started the Modern Shakespeare Company (https://www.modernshakespeare.com) maybe 20 years ago, but it’s just my thing and there’s only been one so-called performance.

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

RS: Um, no.

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

RS: Making Shakespeare and the classics accessible. I really took an interest in director Buzz Goodbody. I was intrigued by her approach at the RSC. She took over their costume shed (“The Other Place”) and made it into a successful experimental theatre.

The seminal Macbeth with Ian McKellen and Judi Dench premiered there and so did Ben Kingsley’s Hamlet, during which she committed suicide at the age of 28—a metaphor of Haley’s Comet.

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

RS: No one single person, rather a variety of really smart people—many of whom were teachers during my time at ACT (Rod Gnapp, Ken Ruta, Larry Hecht) or RADA (Andrew). I always hope to learn something from the directors I work with and my fellow actors.

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

RS: I’ve done some musicals in the past (the last one was Cabaret at CenterRep a few years back), but I’m kinda done with those.

Some of the dramas I like and would like to do someday are Cyrano, Of Mice & Men (Lenny, of course), and Nick Dear’s adaptation of Frankenstein.

As for comedies, I really enjoyed Hangmen (McDonough’s brilliant black comedy), The Play That Goes Wrong, or Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests—all of which I’d love to do.

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

RS: My last show at Left Edge Theatre was a solo show called Every Brilliant Thing, which tells the story of a young boy as he grows up trying to cope with his mother’s depression and suicide attempts. It’s funny, sad, and presents a difficult subject in a really moving way.

I performed as Miles in Left Edge Theatre’s world premiere of Sideways in 2017, which had an awesome cast and collaborated with author Rex Pickett. It was great to share this story that has had an indelible impact on the wine industry.

ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays? Care to share titles of those you would never produce—or never produce again?

RS: Neil Simon. I’ve felt this way for many years, which actually led to me taking a role in the world premiere of Dale Wasserman’s play Premiere. It’s the story of a playwright so successful he gets bored with writing one Broadway hit after another so he decides to write a play in verse and pass it off as a long lost play by William Shakespeare. When Dale’s widow flew out to see the play, she told me how Dale and Neil Simon were great friends and, ironically, the character I was playing (the playwright) was really based on Neil Simon.

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

RS: Oooooh. There’s a long list. Let’s start with Our Town and the entire Andrew Lloyd Webber canon.

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

RS: Definitely The Norman Conquests or even a solid production of Deathtrap (which is really rare).

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

RS: Hands down, King John. It’s a great play that can be done with a small cast in a small theatre. The text can veer off course a little, but nothing a director/dramaturg couldn’t sort out. There are some great verbal exchanges in there.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

RS: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s easy to do, especially for kids and newbies to Shakespeare.

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

RS: Probably sound design. Maybe set design. To me, both are a little more conceptual and appeal to me more than the other aspects.

I think I’d be scared of any animal smaller than a horse being scaled up…

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

RS: Very hard. Jarion Monroe, Julian Lopez-Morillas, Stacy Ross. There are so many talented people in the Bay Area.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

RS: First, the typical vocal and physical warm-ups to get things going. Then I have show-specific warm-ups depending on the show. It might be songs that evoke for me the spirit of the play or it might be speeding through the lines of a particularly challenging part. Followed by an espresso.

After the show, it’s all about trying to wind down. That takes me longer when I have smaller parts in the show. For larger parts, winding down is easier due to the vocal/physical demand.

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

RS:

1. Work constantly on your instrument, mentally and physically.

2. Study the classics. Mine them for gems. They’re classics for a reason.

3. Become self-aware by learning the connection between how you think you’re perceived and how you actually are.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

RS: Yes, I’m the head of product design for a Silicon Valley technology company.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

RS: I created a few theatre related apps that I work on outside of theatre:

Shakespeare Pro: An app containing the complete works, glossary, search and a variety of other features to help students, teachers, actors, directors and other theatre professionals. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/shakespeare-pro/id341392367

Soliloquy Pro: An app to manage your monologues and help you memorize them. Search from over a thousand classic pieces and share them with others. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/soliloquy-pro/id1029313343

Scriptigo Pro: An app to manage file/theatre scripts, take notes, and share with others. https://apps.apple.com/us/app/scriptigo-pro/id1444743519

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

RS: A simple black cotton t-shirt.

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

RS: I think I’d be scared of any animal smaller than a horse being scaled up that big! Good premise for a horror flick though.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

RS: Meh. I’ve done some of those things, but I’m not an “adrenaline junkie” by any stretch.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

RS: Movie: “It’s not the years, it’s the mileage.” — Indiana Jones (gets more and more relevant as I get older)

Stage Play: “It’s discouraging to think how many people are shocked by honesty and how few by deceit.” —Charles Condomine (Blithe Spirit)

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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.

 

ASR Not-So-Random Question Time: Actor, Director, Teacher and Did We Mention He Works Insanely Hard? It’s Michael Ray Wisely.

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.

***

Michael Ray Wisely

Michael Ray Wisely is one busy guy: actor, director, teacher, and more. He has long been one of the Bay Area theater scene’s most prolific members. Most recently he played the despicable manipulator Iago in African American Shakespeare Company’s production of Othello, and was a core member of the SF Playhouse production of Aaron Loeb’s Ideation, a stunningly apocalyptic dark comedy that went from San Francisco to an extended run in New York. MRW kindly took time from his hectic schedule to chat with Aisle Seat Review.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

MRW: Mrs. Stuart’s 6th grade class and, later, I literally knocked on a door!

My first experience was playing Huck Finn in an adaptation of Tom Sawyer. My 6th grade teacher, (Nancy Stuart, now deceased) told me that I had potential, but, growing up poor, the idea of being a theatre artist was as remote as being an Apollo astronaut. After high school I went to college for broadcast journalism, had a summer internship working as an on-air DJ at a radio station, but couldn’t afford to return to school fall semester. With few prospects, I joined the Air Force with the idea of eventually getting a degree in electronics engineering.

Here’s where “the door” opened. I was exploring the neighborhood near McChord Air Force Base one day and saw the Lakewood Playhouse. I knocked on the door to get some information and just as I was leaving, the AD asked me if I could read for a part that evening because some-one had just quit. I said yes, and two years later, I chose to go to a conservatory training program rather than re-signing with the Air Force. I started my professional career the month after college and never looked back.

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

MRW: Amateur: Tom Sawyer, in the 6th grade. Directing: A touring theatre company Children’s Theatre Workshop. As an AEA actor: San Jose Stage Company.

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

MRW: 25 to 50. I really don’t know.

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

MRW: It’s a village. I learned my craft in the traditional way: classical training followed by apprenticeship, followed by work. So many actors and directors that I have worked with have left their mark and I still meet new teachers, sometimes in the youngest members of a company who remind me what open-eyed awe and reverence look like.

As to the stalwarts, I would probably have to say my wife Wendy (a director/actor/professor herself) , the late, great Sydney Walker (a mentor, and in the original acting company of Bill Ball at ACT), casting director Annie Stuart (Playground), who was a big champion of my work, and the many AD’s/directors who have hired me over the years. So many people are a part of who I am as an actor/director. It’s humbling to think about. I could list 100 + and still wouldn’t be giving someone their due.

I think that’s one of the great lessons in this business. The next person you meet, the next move you make, could change your career, your acting, your life, your world, forever. Understanding that is the key to a sustained career in anything I think. I believe in the power of the arts to change the world in the same way. I try to pass it on by being a mentor any time I am fortunate enough to be given the chance.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How are you coping with the shutdown?

MRW: It changes week to week. Some weeks, I’ve been really productive. I’ve done online readings with other actors working on dream projects. I’ve made some short films and put together some online film auditions.

Mostly, I’ve been trying to organize, plan, file and take care of the minutia of life so I can be more focused when we get back to some kind of normal. Some days are better than others, but I cannot complain as I have a great life, generous talented friends, a roof, food, and my wife and daughter. I live in gratitude even more than usual.

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

MRW: Tough one … As an actor/director, my planning is dependent on the theaters I collaborate with. I usually know what I’m doing for six months to a year in advance, and I don’t have any idea what’s going to happen now. Both of the shows I had have been postponed. One has been moved to next summer and the other’s fate is in the hands of the gods.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community over-all?

MRW: I think in the short term our community is already deeply affected by the economic situation. We may lose several companies and the ones that survive will be in difficulty for quite some time. I’ve always believed in the theatre as a survivor and no doubt it will. Some great art is going to come out of this, but we’re all going to be changed. It is my hope that our communities will rally in support of artists and companies, that theatre companies will have more appreciation for their local artists, and that we will all understand how fortunate we are to make art on a deeper level than before.

One thing is for sure: when people feel safe to be in the dark with strangers again, it will be electric, life affirming, and I’m looking forward to the pathos of those moments.

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

MRW: I’m often so in love with what I’ve just done or what I’m about to do that it’s a difficult question. Playing Robert in Pinter’s Betrayal was a favorite, as was Iago in Othello. I’ve played some of Shakespeare’s greatest clowns as well as the Scottish King. I love challenging language and that has drawn me to playwrights like G.B. Shaw, Pinter, O’Neill, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Wilde, Williams, and more recent playwrights like Mamet, Rebecca Gilman, Tracy Letts, and Theresa Rebeck.

A favorite is Ideation, by Aaron Loeb, a local playwright and friend. I worked on the play with Aaron and the rest of the company, put together by SF Playhouse, and ended up going with it for an off-Broadway run with the original cast intact. It’s hard to top that kind of experience. Aaron’s language is specific, smart, fast, and a thrill for the audience and the actor.

We’ve got some insanely gifted writers here in the Bay Area: Jonathon Spector, Lauren Yee, Michael Gene Sullivan, Geetha Reddy, and Lauren Gunderson (ok, she’s not a native but we claim her) to name a few. As a matter of fact, local playwright Anthony Clarvoe wrote an incredible drama called The Living that I performed in at San Jose Stage Company in the mid-90s. Written as an AIDS parable, it was about the bubonic plague in 1666. It’s a beautiful play and I’ve been revisiting it during this pandemic. So many things it chronicles are happening right now—the fear, the misinformation, the avarice, the stupidity. That’s what good art does—it stays relevant because it speaks universal truths in inventive ways. That’s why art and artists are important.

Favorite Musicals: Sweeney Todd was the first musical that really made me sit up and take notice. I’m a sucker for classics like Guys and Dolls. Of the ones I’ve been in, On the 20th Century is a favorite, and I loved playing Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast and the Sheriff in Whorehouse. I rarely do musicals, but really enjoy them when I’m given the opportunity.

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

MRW: I’ve got several. Some I’d like to see put away forever, but, I won’t say because I wouldn’t want to denigrate any artist’s work just because I don’t like it or don’t find it interesting. The act of theatre is brave in any of its many disciplines and it should be celebrated. With that, I will say that there are things I’ve despised, mocked and laughed at that I’m sure have been important to or changed the lives of others.

I’ve got an example for that I’ll share over a cocktail sometime.

I learned my craft in the traditional way: classical training followed by apprenticeship, followed by work.

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

MRW: Big, giant plays with large casts, fire and water and spectacle. More Shaw and Chekhov and sweeping dramas 3+ hours long. When I go to the National Theatre in London sometimes and see these epic straight plays with a cast of 25 and more, it is thrilling and heartbreaking to me because American audiences will rarely ever get that experience with the exception of musicals.

Societies are known by the art they create. Look at how we revere art of the past. The support of the arts by our government should be an order of national pride, not a wedge used by career politicians to hold on to power and separate the people that art is serving. It’s a travesty and should be seen as a national shame, but, alas, there’s plenty more of that to go around.

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

MRW: I think Love’s Labours Lost. It is such a simple love story on the surface and yet it is filled with characters whose very human actions expose love and its many sides with a sophistication not seen in later plays. It’s singular and original in that it doesn’t seem to be taken from other plays and stories of the time. It also has an ending that’s surprisingly melancholy, as love is postponed.

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

MRW: Sound and projections/video. I love creating with sound and am a photographer and filmmaker. Sound can move people subconsciously and I am a sucker for those who are brilliant with it. As an actor, it can raise the stakes of a scene or the reality of a play in every way.

One story that I remember is sitting in the audience of Superior Donuts at Theatre Works several seasons back and when the “furnace” came on in the donut shop, it had a visceral bass WHOOMP to it that I could feel in the middle of the theatre. We were inside that donut shop. It was wonderfully surprising and I thanked Bay Area sound designer Jeff Mokus for bringing me the reality of what an old oil furnace feels/sounds like when it starts up.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

MRW: Many could fit that description, but I’d like to hold up a couple of up-and-coming artists you may not be familiar with: Patrick Kelly Jones and Tristan Cunningham. They knock me out. Both of them have great skill and are inventive and make surprising choices.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

MRW: My warm-ups are all about ritual. I have a routine vocally a few hours before a show then physically in the space and then I get very particular, even superstitious, about the order and timing up to curtain. I’ve heard professional athletes talk about this as well. It changes a little from show to show, but it’s always been that way for me. I’m not alone in pre-curtain idiosyncrasies. We’re a ritualistic tribe.

After a show, you can be so wound up and tired at the same time that you have to have some kind of cool down. Sometimes it’s drinks with friends, but I try to keep that in check for obvious reasons. No matter how I chose to do it, it always takes a few hours.

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

MRW: These three…

1) Show up! (on time, prepared, ready to throw down. That’s the entry fee for a career.)

2) Integrity! Professional and personal (Do your work in the service of others and the project and know why you do it. If it’s only about you, you’re not going to make it.)

3) TCB! (taking care of the business of your career, treating people well, caring, following up. How you go about your business is as important as everything else you do.)

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

MRW: I have a few people that I can talk to in any way about anything! That’s important as an artist. You need to have a few people in your life, a posse even, who you can let it hang out with. Who you can be ridiculous with, risk with, and be wrong with. People who know your heart and your artist and will not judge you by your worst day and will hold up your best days as the true measure of who you are. Greatness can come out of those relationships.

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

MRW: A couple made out and fondled each other in the front row of a 250-seat house.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

MRW: Film/television and radio acting. I had my own show in the early days of DIY television. I have freelanced directing corporate films and live shows. I’ve coached people on public speaking and have taught acting and been a guest lecturer at several colleges. Acting and directing in the theatre have been my focus for over thirty years now. I’ve been a fortunate man.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

MRW: Travel, sailing, film making, photography, building, weightlifting, tennis, motorcycles, cooking, surfing and I’ve dabbled in hang gliding, and autocross racing.

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

MRW: I do when I can. If you’re lucky enough to be working show to show (and that is what you need to do if you want to make a living) it can be difficult. When I’m not working, I’m at the theatre. I love seeing new talent and having my colleagues surprise me. As far as the other arts, I love photography and making films. I’m often in pursuit of one or the other and a lot of it just for me and my friends.

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

MRW: Root canal or colonoscopy.

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

MRW: Got into a fist-fight defending someone who needed help.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

MRW: I’ve done most of the ones listed and have also been hang-gliding. But shark diving? Absolutely not. Two ways I’d rather not die—one is as a predator’s dinner and the other is in a plane full of screaming people. Now, I do surf and fly, so I guess it’s up to fate. I’d really like a long life and, other than dying surrounded by loved ones, I think it would be great to die on stage or at rehearsal, maybe in an actual death scene.

Coda: I also don’t want to die stepping out into the street and being hit by a bus because you’d have to be thinking to yourself: “Ohhhh, F#*k, this is such a stupid way to die.”

ASR: If you had to play one role you’ve already done for a year, what would it be?

MRW: I’ve played both Bluntchli and Petkoff in Arms and the Man and Petkoff is one of those perfect comic characters. The world of the play acts on him instead of the other way around. He’s lovable, bombastic, and has some of the greatest comic bits where everyone knows what’s happening but him. It’s great fun and there’s great possibility for rolling laughs. He also carries no real weight, so it’s all the fun with very little responsibility. I love carrying a play, and getting the girl sometimes, but, it’s also nice to just be the guy who gets the laughs.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

MRW: I get a new favorite every play. Like most actors, I also often find lines that are problematic from first rehearsal to the final curtain. That’s the joy and the curse of being in the theatre. There are a thousand that I wish I could say again in front of an audience. Recently, I remember taking joy in a line of Iago’s: “And what’s he then that says I play the villain?” after which the audience would often burst out in laughter. When it first happened, it surprised me.

They were laughing at the horrible way I had just manipulated Cassio. There were others that jeered and hissed. It’s magic and you and the audience both know it and feel it. As I finished the speech, they unwittingly became accomplices in the undoing of Othello and the eventual murder of Desdemona. That’s the power of words and language. It should never be underestimated

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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.

ASR Not-So-Random Question Time: On the Curtain Line with Spreckels Theatre Company Artistic Director Sheri Lee Miller

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.

***

Sheri Lee Miller

Sheri Lee Miller has enjoyed a lifelong career as a professional stage director, actor and theater administrator, working with some of the leading theaters on the West Coast, including Seattle Rep, A Contemporary Theater, Tacoma Actors Guild, Gaslamp Quarter Theater, and Seattle Children’s Theater. Locally, she has been privileged to direct and act at Cinnabar Theater, Sonoma County Rep, 6th Street Playhouse, Actors Theater, Spreckels Theatre Company, and Main Stage West, where she is a founding member.

She holds a B.A. in Theater Arts from San Diego State University, with a double emphasis on acting and directing.

She has appeared in dozens of television commercials, voice-overs, industrial films and print ads, and is a member of Actors Equity and AFTRA. Sheri is Artistic Director at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, a position she’s held since July 2017. The center’s Codding Theater, with more than 500 seats, is Sonoma County’s largest. The center also operates the adjacent Condiotti Theater, a smaller venue. It is not unusual for two productions to be running simultaneously.

Sheri strongly believes that exposure to the arts in general and theater in particular leads to a more thoughtful, balanced and empathetic society. “I truly believe that art and artistry must be nurtured at home, at school and in the community if we as a society are to achieve the highest levels of empathy and humanity.”

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

SLM: We are probably most known for our big musicals in the Codding Theater, which are pretty fantastic, I must say. But we also do excellent smaller shows in our Condiotti studio space. We are committed to supporting new works, especially by local playwrights if possible. We are trying to keep one slot open for a new play each season, but we won’t put up just anything because it is new. It has to be a great script. We also have a very strong youth program, the Spreckels Education Program. Those young actors are very committed and it’s a pleasure to watch them develop. They do great work!

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

SLM: Probably my instructor at Santa Rosa JC, Joan Lee LaSalle (Woehler). She was my friend and mentor. Powerful, kind and brilliant. I think of her often and hope she is proud.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

SLM: We are working on an enormous restructuring of our various storage areas and a box office remodel. We are moving tens of thousands of costume items and will photograph and catalog them for ease of use and rental. We’ve also finished our props storage rooms. Sadly, our wonderful part-timers are currently laid off. So this is a lot of work for only three of us—Eddy Hansen, Gail Shelton and myself—to accomplish. And we are having a ball with it! I love this kind of work. Sooooo satisfying. And it’s great to be doing something physical.

…One night, I managed to enter at the wrong time and effectively cut an entire scene…

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

SLM: Well, it’s pretty impossible to plan. We do know we intend to go ahead with Matilda and Galatea in the coming season, as they were cancelled this year. Galatea was only a week from opening, and as for Matilda…those actors had been cast many months ago. And we already have the set, costumes, props ,etc. for it. We will also be doing Once Upon a Mattress, Jr. for the Education Program. We are not certain when those shows will actually go up.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community overall?

SLM: Theater has been around for thousands of years. There is a reason for that. People crave community and storytelling. Experiencing a story, through a live performance, with other audience members, satisfies something very primal in our souls. I think it will come back strong, but may need to ramp up gradually as we make our way through this crisis. As long as there is a space, a performer, and someone to observe the performance…theater is happening and it is alive and well.

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

SLM: This is a terribly difficult question! Hamlet, of course. And King Lear. Arcadia. Angels in America. The two greatest comedies in my mind are Noises Off and You Can’t Take it With You. Musicals? I love them all.

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

SLM: Gee, aren’t they all pretty highly rated? I have only read Coriolanus, never seen it. But at first read, it read to me as a dark comedy. I’d love to see a production. It seems especially appropriate right now. I would like to produce it, but I suspect the audiences would be slim.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

SLM: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But I do love it, and will probably produce it at some point.

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

SLM: Oh, I really love doing tech! I think I would choose props. Very crafty, little sewing (I’ve sewn enough for a lifetime), and doesn’t require a lot of space. Yeah…props are fun.

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

SLM: 1: Push through fear. Let it energize you rather than block you. And let your inner mantra be: “The universe loves artists.” 2: Learn to listen, both onstage and off, in your theater work and your “civilian” life. Quiet and focused observation and active listening help develop an understanding of the people and world around us and is imperative to the work we do. 3: Respect and understand every artist’s contribution to the work. If you truly respect everyone, you will be on time, arrive ready to work, care for your costumes, set and props, know your lines solidly, let others speak, work with your director and care about the playwright’s intentions.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up you’ve seen onstage?

SLM: Well, my most excruciating screw-up was during Eat the Runt at Actors Theater. It was a very difficult play where we all learned all the parts and each night the audience would cast us. So you never knew which role you were going to play when you entered the theater that night. One night, I managed to enter at the wrong time and effectively cut an entire scene. I didn’t even realize it until I got off stage and Joe Winkler pointed out what I had done, thus cutting his role in half. I had never messed up an entrance before or since, and I still feel terrible about it. Sorry again, Joe!

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

SLM: When I was 25 and performing Madge in Picnic in Seattle, when it was time for Madge and Hal to run off to the “do it” bushes, a young woman stood up and yelled, “Go for it!”

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

SLM: 1: The planet is our source of life and must be regarded as the Supreme Ruler. 2: We are all equal and deserve equal opportunity, protection and sustenance. 3: Be nice.

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

SLM: The Real Housewives of Sonoma County. Everyone just smokes pot while discussing wine, trendy food and their kids.

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

SLM: A potato bug.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

SLM: “What’s done cannot be undone.” Lady Macbeth.

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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.

 

ASR Not-So-Random Questions Time: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley Founder and Artistic Director Robert Kelley

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.

***

Robert Kelley

Robert Kelley is founder and Artistic Director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, one of the oldest and most esteemed theater companies in the Bay Area. Both Kelley and his company have been honored multiple times by Theatre Bay Area (TBA) and the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC). Kelley kindly took time to respond to ASR’s not-so-random and not-too-serious questionnaire…

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

RK: At age 8 I walked past our local children’s theatre and saw a sign that read “Auditions.” In I went, and got cast! My talent: being loud.

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

RK: Goldilocks and the Three Bears—a fourteen-year-old played my mother and told the cautionary tale to me as it was acted out onstage. I may have had a few lines, but I can’t remember them at the moment. Maybe “Yes, Mama.”

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

RK: Less than ten: TheatreWorks, Cal Shakes, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, St. Louis Rep, and a few smaller companies.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

RK: 1970. I’m the founder.

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

RK: No. Our long-range plan was to produce a second production. Then a third. We’re at 450 shows today.

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

RK: Plays and musicals, world premieres (70 to date), recent on- and off-Broadway, re-imagined classics.

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

RK: Stephen Sondheim.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

RK: We’ve cancelled three shows (of an eight show season), and restructured the 2020-21 season to seven shows, beginning in October, with most of the smaller shows going first. We’ve moved our 19th New Works Festival six months, from August to January.

We’ve begun an active program offering streams of previously produced shows, and interviews with staff and artists from around the country. Soon to come: readings of new works in development. So far, we’ve been able to keep our full-time employees.

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

RK: We’ve moved our World Premiere drama Nan and the Lower Body from March to July, where it will become the first show of our 2021-22 season. For this coming December, we’ve added an inspiring and funny hope-in-the-face-of-despair holiday production of It’s a Wonderful Life: a Live Radio Play.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community overall?

RK: For everyone: very tight budgets, smaller shows, fewer actors and designers from out of the area, expanded online presence, ultimately smaller staffs. I think we are all worried that some companies may not make it through this intact, as was the case in the recession of 2008.

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts world by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?

RK: We have been paying at least minimum wage to everyone for some time. We believe we are in compliance with all aspects of AB5.

(most over-performed)…Titus Andronicus. Even one production is too many.

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

RK: Dramas: M Butterfly, The Elephant Man, Arcadia, and Romeo and Juliet. Musicals: Ragtime, Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Once on This Island, Pacific Overtures. Comedies: The 39 Steps, As You Like It, and Once in a Lifetime.

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

RK: Emma, Daddy Long Legs, and Pride and Prejudice.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

RK: Titus Andronicus. Even one production is too many.

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

RK: Props. I love finding the perfect period piece that defines an era—and I wish I knew how to make a period newspaper.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

RK: Francis Jue. He’s from here, now in New York, but frequently returns here.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

RK: I pace.

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

RK: Patience, preparation, laughter, listening. Was that more than three? Did I mention patience?

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

RK: I met Ev Shiro, my life partner of 38 years, at TheatreWorks and have loved her ever since. We’re also friends.

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

RK: We had a frequently confused actor forget to wear his pants for an entrance in Gypsy.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

RK: Do you have an hour?

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

RK: A very young boy attending our holiday musical Oliver! re-set in Victorian London in December, very loudly: “Mommy, why’s it snowing inside?

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

RK: Collecting beach glass, mushroom hunting.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

RK: Patience, laughter, listening.

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

RK: Titus Andronicus.

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

RK: Forgot to stage a scene.

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

RK: “The Water is Wide” by James Taylor; “Both Sides Now” by Joni Mitchell; “Fields of Gold” by Eva Cassidy.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

RK: Reading the paper the day after opening.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

RK: “Children will listen.”

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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.

 

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.

***

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.

ASR Not-so-Random Questions Time: Actors Gregory Crane and Amber Collins Crane — Two for the Footlights

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.

***

Gregory Crane
Amber Collins Crane

In the past several years, Gregory Crane and his wife Amber Collins Crane have appeared individually and together in many North Bay productions, including “Deathtrap” with Ross Valley Players, and “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Novato Theater Company. The two were the best Blanche and Stanley that many critics had ever seen. Gregory was tremendous as the dance master in “A Chorus Line” and Amber gave an astounding lead performance in RVP’s “Incidents in the Wicked Life of Moll Flanders,” for which she won an “outstanding actress” nomination from the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

Gregory studied at NYU/Tisch and is the author of a solo play about the life of Tennessee Williams titled “Love, 10.” Favorite performances include “A Streetcar Named Desire” (SFBATCC nomination), “A Chorus Line” (SFBATCC nomination), “Two Gentleman of Verona” (South Coast Rep), “The Glass Menagerie” (RVP), “Deathtrap” (RVP), “Private Lives” (RVP), and “The Diary of Anne Frank” (Hangar Theatre).

Amber worked in theatre, television and film in NYC, LA, and in regional theatres including Actors Theatre of Louisville and the Berkshire Theatre Festival before making Marin her home. In addition to Moll Flanders in “Incidents in the Wicked Life of Moll Flanders,” favorite Bay Area roles include Blanche in “Streetcar Named Desire,” Becca in “Rabbit Hole,” May in “Fool for Love”, and Birdie in “Little Foxes.”

ASR: How did you get started in theatre?

GC: My older brother is an actor so I started young in musical summer camps in LA.

ACC: My first role was playing baby Jesus in the church nativity play when I was four months old. Pure nepotism. My Mom and Dad were Mary and Joseph. Those other babies didn’t have a chance! I will forever be searching for the chance to play a character bigger than the divine prophet and son of God. Blanche in “Streetcar” came close.

…1. Be kind to everyone 2. Know your lines 3. Maintain proper dental hygiene.

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

GC: When I was 19, I was in “The Diary of Anne Frank” at the Hangar Theatre in NY. That was my first professional production. It was a transformative experience being onstage for two hours and telling such an important story for me personally.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

GC: The company we are currently working with is called Zoom Theatre. In March, when shelter-in-place began, Patrick Nims decided to produce and direct plays for a web audience. Zoom Theatre debuted in early April with two early David Mamet one-acts. Next week, Amber and I open the play “Lungs” by Duncan Macmillan, a beautiful play about a couple starting a family as the world is starting to fall apart. We’re hoping it will really resonate in today’s world.

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

ACC: I would have to say my college theatre professor, David Dvorscak. He saw me as an artist before I saw myself that way, and helped me understand what a profound strength vulnerability can be on and off the stage. He also pushed my very perfectionistic self to take risks in my work. He would say that theatre is a wonderful place to fail—as long as you fail big and with all your heart.

GC: I had a great mentor in high school, Ted Walch, and another in college at NYU, Michael Krass, who believed in me, encouraged me, and treated me like an equal. They are still my friends and confidantes today.

ASR: How do you envision the future for the theatre community overall?

ACC: We hear it over and over right now: “these are uncertain times.” But I am certain that the theatre community will recover. Theatre artists are the most stubborn, resourceful people I know. They can make magic with a $50 budget and a handful of paperclips. When the apocalypse has come and it is all just miles of dust and rubble, I can guarantee that if you listen hard enough, you will hear a stage manager somewhere shouting “Places!,” and a troupe of actors responding, “Thank you, Places!”

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

GC: “Zoo Story,” “Hair,” “The Bomb-itty of Errors,” a hip-hop Shakespeare play written by good friends from NYU. It was an off-Broadway hit in the early 2000s and paved the way for “Hamilton.”

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

GC: Before: vocal gymnastics, body loosening, breath work, gratitude practice. After: beer.

ACC: My “warm up” includes manically throwing together dinner for the kids, singing loudly in the car on the way to the theatre, some stretching and movement on the stage, and a prayer in the wings. I wind down with red wine and a racy period drama. I like my sexy with corsets and without penicillin!

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

GC: 1. Be kind to everyone 2. Know your lines 3. Maintain proper dental hygiene.

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

GC: Projections. It’s the only one I’d be any good at. I have a love for photography, Photoshop and animation, so I think that would be fun. The projections in RVP’s recent production of “Silent Sky” were really beautiful.

ACC: I would have to say set decorating and props. I am forever creating little installations in my own home with loved objects and books, things I have collected from nature, art work from my children. It would great fun to layer a production with meaning and depth by thoughtfully choosing each prop a character touches, uses, and loves.

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

ACC: This question makes me emotional! I am so deeply grateful for the friendships that I have established in the bay area theatre community. Attending an opening night often feels like what the best family reunion ever should feel like. I love it! But I have to say that my friendship with Gregory is the theatre-related friendship that means the most to me. And not just because he is sitting right here! Having the chance to work on stage with him is part of what has helped move our relationship from husband-and-wife/partners in the business of running a family to a true and evolving friendship. I am able to see him through new eyes when we are performing together and that is such a gift when you have known each other as long as we have!

GC: My wife. Hands down. I love being on stage with her, and even more than that, I love talking about plays with her and getting her insight into my work.

ASR: What the weirdest thing you have seen a guest do at the theater?

ACC: When I was working the front of house for a production of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” in SF an audience member started hurling loud, expletive filled insults at Big Daddy, letting him know very passionately about what she felt about his parenting skills and his value system. I had to escort/drag her out into the lobby where we proceeded to have a full therapy session about her own family history. The theatre served its purpose as a place of catharsis that night for sure!

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

GC: It wasn’t really a screw-up, but I saw John Leguizamo’s “Freak” in NY. Some guy was being loud and belligerent in the audience behind us. John yelled at him to shut the *bleep* up, then just said to all of us: “This is why I love live theatre, man.” That was exhilarating.

ASR: Do you have a day job?

GC: I am a project manager in Apple’s marketing department

ACC: I am a psychologist by day. I find my role as an actor and my role as a therapist to be very complementary. I think that the best theatre and the best therapy demonstrate that relationships can heal and they honor the darkest moments in our lives, in our stories, as opportunities for the most beautiful transformation.

ASR: What are your interests outside the theatre?

GC: DJ’ing, stand-up paddleboarding, cooking, biking, my kids.

ACC: My children. They are endlessly fascinating to me. Bizarre little magical creatures. I am so lucky to have a front row seat to their adventures.

ASR: Do you actively do any other arts apart from theater?

GC: I DJ and take photos. I love the opportunity to create a good time for people and get them to dance. I’ve been throwing Zoom dance parties during quarantine and it has been a great release for me and for my guests.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”—have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

GC: I race stand-up paddleboards. I did a nine-mile race around Angel Island and the water was so choppy I had to do most of the race kneeling. I’m always thinking when I’m out there how easily a shark could pop up out of nowhere and take a bite out of me. But it’s a great sport, especially in the Bay Area.

ACC: Answering questions for publication seems risky to me. I tend to keep a low profile! But beyond that, I am risky in love. I fall in love a hundred times a day with people, coffee drinks, a particular squirrel outside my window, the smell of the jasmine growing on my fence. My heart gets broken a lot. And, just like the adrenaline rush of rock climbing, each time I can’t wait for the next time!

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or play?

ACC: I love a good quote so my favorite changes daily, but one that resonates now is from “Marisol” by José Rivera. “What a time to be alive, huh? On one hand, we’re nothing. We’re dirt. On the other hand, we’re the reason the universe was made.”

GC: “Get busy living, or get busy dying” – from “The Shawshank Redemption.”

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

ASR’s Not-so-Random Question Time: Publicist Extraordinaire Kim Taylor

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.

***

Kim Taylor

For many years, Kim Taylor was the most prolific and hardest-working publicist in Bay Area theater. The former newspaper scribe went out on her own in 1999 and was soon representing companies all over the North Bay—including the Mountain Play, Marin Shakespeare Company, Novato Theater Company, Ross Valley Players, Spreckels Performing Arts Center, 6th Street Playhouse, Hoochi-Doo Productions, Porchlight Theatre Company, and Transcendence Theatre Company, many of them with productions opening simultaneously—a sometimes grueling schedule that she managed almost alone.

A lifelong theater enthusiast, Taylor is renowned for her professionalism and attention to detail. Her pre-show feasts and meet-and-greet affairs were among reviewers’ most enjoyable events. She retired from public relations work this past December, capping an unsurpassed twenty-year career. We miss you, Kim!

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

KT: In grammar school and participating in summer recreation theater programs.

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

KT: In high school I played Mama Rose in “Gypsy.”

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

KT: As a publicist, I have represented more than twenty companies including college, university and community, semi-professional and professional theater companies. During my career I represented over 450 theater productions.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

KT: After working more than twelve years in the newsroom of the Marin Independent Journal, I launched a career as a freelance publicist in 1999. I retired in December 2019.

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

KT: Most of my career I had to juggle several clients including musical groups, theater companies and entertainment events. I ended my career working exclusively as publicist for Transcendence Theatre Company.

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

KT: As a publicist I represented every genre including Shakespeare, Broadway musicals, opera, American classics, comedy, new works and experimental theater.

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

KT: Harvey Susser and James Dunn, College of Marin Drama Department.

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

KT: Drama: “Dodsworth.” Broadway musical: “Guys and Dolls,” “Cabaret,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Evita.” Comedy: “An Ideal Husband,” “The 39 Steps” and “Bullshot Crummond.”

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

KT: My favorite client productions include the Spreckels Theatre Company 2013 production of “Mel Brooks New Musical Young Frankenstein,” the Porchlight Theatre Company 2008 outdoor production of “Under Milk Wood,” and the 6th Street Playhouse 2011 production of “Cabaret.”

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

KT: “Death of a Salesman” – I find it too depressing.

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

KT: I would love to see “Dodsworth” revived with the story re-set in the 21st Century.

…”When did Ma get a cat?”

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play? Why?

KT: “King John.” I enjoy the play’s wickedly witty comedy.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

KT: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

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

KT: Costumes. I have always been interested in styles of period and historic garments.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

KT: Actress Mary Gannon Graham. Also actor Tim Kniffin.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

KT: As a publicist, I could relax only after reviews were published.

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

KT: Plan well in advance and meet your deadlines. Check and double-check press release details to avoid errors. Always thank the media for coverage.

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

KT: Dan Taylor, editor/reporter for Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat. We have newsroom experience in common and both of us enjoy and appreciate theater and performing arts.

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

KT: In 2004, a wayward tabby got lost in the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre and made an unexpected appearance during a performance of the company’s production of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” stealing the scene from three actors as it delighted a packed audience.

Set in the Yonkers apartment of the stern Grandma Kurnitz, actors Bruce Vieira (as Uncle Louie Kurnitz), David Abrams and Kyle Lemle (as his nephews, Jay and Arty Kurnitz) were half way through a significant scene when the cat made its cameo appearance striding across the living room set.

The audiences’ uproarious reaction startled the cat to exit stage left. After a comic beat, veteran actor Vieira restored order with a brilliant improvisation.

“When did Ma get a cat?” asked Vieira of his fellow actors, before he continued the scene. Vieira’s quick wit was hilarious and restored order allowing the scene to continue.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

KT: I’ve seen several productions of the musical “Annie” where Sandy the dog would not cooperate.

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

KT: At a studio theater performance of “The 39 Steps” an audience member commented loudly throughout Act I about the quick changes.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

KT: My grandson, old movies, vintage music, family genealogy and photography.

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

KT: My husband and I enjoyed vintage dancing for many years. The bands we followed played popular music of the 1920s and 1930s. We learned vintage dances, dressed in period clothing, and attended dance events presented in spectacular venues, including the Avalon Ballroom on Catalina Island.

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

KT: “For Immediate Release” – Endless dramatic and comedic material and an array of characters (actors, producers, directors, reviewers, etc.) would fuel this episodic series following the adventures of a freelance publicist representing theater companies in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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

KT: “Don’t Say Goodbye,” 1932 – featuring vocals by Al Bowlly with Ray Noble and his New Mayfair Orchestra. The song is from “Wild Violets,” a musical comedy operetta written by Robert Stolz. I love the clever arrangement by Ray Noble. “Pick Yourself Up,” 1936 – music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Dorothy Fields. “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” 1936 – music and lyrics by Irving Berlin.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

KT: Jewelry.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks”— have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

KT: I have no interest in “true” risk taking, but I took a lot of risks in my work as a publicist.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

KT: “Love has got to stop some place short of suicide.” ~ Sam Dodsworth, from the “Dodsworth” book, play and film.

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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.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

***

Phillip Percy Williams

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

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

Website: www.phillippercywilliams.com

ASR: Your background?

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

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

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

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

PPW: Approximately fifteen.

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

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

ASR: What are some of your favorite musicals?

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

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

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

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance?

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

ASR: How do you relax after?

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

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

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And scene . . .

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

PPW: Cuff links. I have a substantial collection.

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

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

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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.

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: The Inimitable Jaime Love of Sonoma Arts Live

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.

***

Jaime Love

Jaime Love is Executive Artistic Director of Sonoma Arts Live (SAL), based in the town of Sonoma. SAL performs primarily on the Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall at the Sonoma Community Center. Love has been involved in theater and radio for over 35 years as an actor, producer, singer, director, writer and voice-over artist in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco. She is a founding member of the Sonoma Theater Alliance and Sonoma Arts Live, and for six years was Co-Artistic Director and Producer of the Nicholson Ranch Players’ musical revues and Christmas shows at Nicholson Winery.

A graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, Love left the big city and worked in summer theatre in Montana (“Damn Yankees”), did post-production film work in L.A., and then fell in love with voice-over work and headed east again to attend Connecticut School of Broadcasting. She then went on to Boston, where she worked as the Arts & Entertainment Director and Promotions Director at WMJX and WMEX, focused on producing voice-overs for “Today’s Executive Women” and “That’s Entertainment.” Radio brought Jaime and her husband Rick back to the west, this time to San Francisco and ultimately to Sonoma, where he owns Creative Audience Research. Jaime and Rick have lived in Sonoma for twenty years.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

JL: The minute I saw my first movie, “Mary Poppins.” I’ll never forget the theater, or Julie Andrews’ face filling up the screen. It was like a magic wand tapped me on my head and said “You’ve found your people.” I was the classic put-on-a-show-in-the-backyard kind of kid.

Regarding theater here in Sonoma, I had spent two years in San Francisco from 1993-95 and had loved the thriving scene there. I did a play with Jean Shelton at the Marsh, did an original play at this tiny awesome theater in North Beach called Bannam Place Theater. When we moved to Sonoma for Rick’s job there was just nada happening. Then I wandered into the Sonoma Community Center and discovered a wonderful woman who was starting Theater at the Center. From 1995-2001 we had a thriving community theater. In 2001 under a new administration they decided to use the theater as a rental, and that’s where it stood until 2010 when Todd Evans and I approached the Community Center about renting to us.

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

JL: My first real role was freshman year in high school: “This Property Is Condemned.” First time I was paid was at Park Royale Night Club in New York. I sang a half hour set and was given a tiny stipend and a cut of the door, so of course I asked all my fellow American Academy of Dramatic Arts pals to come! I remember my “hits” were “Because the Night,” and “Your Nobody Called Today,” a popular country-western thing. First show I directed was a music revue I co-wrote called “Wine, Women and Song – Love Unleashed” at Nicholson Ranch winery. I went on to write and produce shows there for about five years.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

JL: 2015. Before then we were a theater cooperative, Sonoma Theater Alliance, for five years.

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

JL: I’m really thrilled and encouraged by the response from the community and the critics. Once we honed in on our demographic and what they wanted, things really came together, and I feel we have found our sweet spot. We have a mature well-educated audience and I try to envision them, what they’ve been through in their lives, and choose plays that speak to them nostalgically or emotionally. I am in their age group and I rely a lot on thinking about my generation’s collective experience and how a play may or may not fit in.

I’m not ashamed to say that our company feels no shame in producing feel-good theater. There is a place for everything, and I love edgy theater and new works but that’s just not us—not to say we do “fluff”—maybe “tried and true” is a better way of looking at it. Sonoma is so small that I truly do know most of our 250 season ticket subscribers and we talk constantly about what brings them through our doors. We do a few new works as staged readings each year, and I’ve been proud and pleased with the response from our patrons.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

JL: I’ve got at least three different scenarios ready to go. It’s been so sad to have to move shows like chess pieces, strategizing and trying to stay one step ahead without having a crystal ball. We were set with a full season ready to announce April 11 with a now cancelled reception. And as so many of us in the North Bay share the same talent pool it will create even more stress. You can’t just move a show three months ahead and not run into conflicts. My hope is to take the three remaining shows in our season and add them to the new one.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community overall?

JL: My guess is it will come back slowly. I’ve been rethinking the big cast/big shows for the short term. If audiences are not allowed to gather in large groups—necessary for us to be financially stable—I’ll need to produce shows that will at least cover expenses for actors, crews and rent. And we are going to have to deal with the very real fear of “gathering” and what that will mean for our actors and our audience. If I think about it too much I go down the rabbit hole.

I’m not ashamed to say that our company feels no shame in producing feel-good theater.

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

JL: “My Fair Lady,” “Always, Patsy Cline,” and “Becky’s New Car.”

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

JL: Definitely props and set decoration. I’ve been a thrift shop and antique hunter since I was about eight years old! A week does not go by when I do not pop into all the great thrift stores in Sonoma. I’m an “Antiques Road Show” junkie! When I was little I would go “antiquing” with my mom and her best friend. I learned so much from them.

ASR: As hard as it may be to pick just one, can you name a Bay Area actor who you think does amazing work?

JL: Well, Dani Innocenti-Beem of course! She has that star power. You can feel the energy when she walks on stage. She truly helped put Sonoma Arts Live on the map. Also Chris Ginesi. I’ve known him since he was about twelve—we did “Our Town” together. He’s truly exciting to watch on the stage. It’s been wonderful to watch him develop his craft over the years.

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

JL: I was playing Rita Boyle in “Prelude to a Kiss” in upstate New York. Cell phones had only just come out—this was before it was added to curtain speeches to turn them off—I’m in the middle of this intimate scene, and not wearing much, and this guy’s phone goes off. He answers as if he’s at home in this very normal voice: “I can’t talk now. I’m watching a play.” Then a few seconds of silence. “Yeah, it’s OK…” meaning “Yeah, the play’s OK.” It was very hard to stay in character after that!

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

JL: I am so blessed and lucky and honored to say for the first time in my life, theater is my paying full time job. We have an amazing Board and a fundraising team

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

JL: Writing, being with my kids, exercising, enjoying new restaurants and hiking with my amazing husband. After 31 years together, I still really like him—and I am writing this after three weeks of seeing basically only him!)

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

JL: For about ten years I wrote wrote wrote, and had a few things published.

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

JL: “Whine Country”—I was a wine country tour guide for six years, creating private trips: lots of bridesmaids, rich rich people, anniversaries. The company I worked for had a division of drivers who picked up people at different hotels for group tours … I have always wanted to do a series based on the TV show “Taxi,” where each episode starts with all of us at the station, picking up our vehicles, and then each individual episode would follow a different charter driver and guests. There are so many stories I could tell!

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

JL: “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from “Oklahoma,” “Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves, and “When You See a Chance,” by Steve Winwood.

My first musical was Oklahoma in ninth grade and I had a huge crush on the guy who played Curly and I can still get butterflies in my stomach picturing him walking out on our stage singing the first few notes.

“Walking on Sunshine”—I lived in Helena, Montana for a few years after NYC, and I had this fun little moped that I would ride to the Grand Street Theater, listening to my Sony Walkman and playing that song full blast riding up and down hills!!

“When You See a Chance”—I first heard it by going through my roomie’s records and throwing it on the turntable. When that song came on it just leapt out at me, I never forgot that moment when lyrics grabbed me like that. It was my grab-a-hairbrush-as-a-microphone-and-stand-on-the-bed song!

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks” — have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

JL: Absolutely not.

-30-

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.

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Leading Light of the San Francisco Stage, Susi Damilano

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.

***

Susi Damilano

Actor/director/producer Susi Damilano is Producing Director of the San Francisco Playhouse, co-founded with husband Bill English, the company’s Artistic Director. In its seventeen years SF Playhouse has grown from relatively obscurity to one of the city’s preeminent theater companies. Damilano is a five-time recipient of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC) ‘Excellence in Theatre Award for Principal Actress in a Play’ for Playhouse productions “Abigail’s Party,” “Harper Regan,” “Bug,” “Six Degrees of Separation,” and “Reckless.”

She has also performed in many other leading roles, in addition to directing Playhouse productions of “Groundhog Day the Musical,” “Cabaret,” “Mary Poppins,” “Noises Off,” “She Loves Me,” “Stage Kiss,” “Company,” “Stupid Fucking Bird,” “Into the Woods,” “A Behanding in Spokane,” “Den of Thieves,” “Wirehead” (SFBATCC nomination).

Damilano also directed the West Coast premieres of “Honey Brown Eyes” (SFBATCC nomination), “Dead Man’s Cell Phone,” “Coronado,” “The Mystery Plays,” and “Roulette,” and the world premieres of “On Clover Road” by Steven Dietz, “From Red to Black” by Rhett Rossi, and “Seven Days” by Daniel Heath. As will attest anyone who’s been to one of the Playhouse’s legendary opening nights, she is also a world-class caterer.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

SD: When I was 27 I visited a friend in London. She told me that while she was at work during the day, to go to Leicester Square and get a half price ticket to anything. I did, and saw my first professional play, “Les Miserables.” I was hooked. The next day I saw “42nd Street.” Wow! That began my love for theater—the magic of seeing someone jump off a bridge to their suicide, and ‘knowing’ he must have landed on the floor, and believing he landed in water. Beautiful.

Our focus is on how plays impact the audience…

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

SD: The first play I performed was called “Coming Attractions” at City Lights Theater. I got to play tons of different parts, sang and danced and had so much fun. Wendy Wisely took a chance on me and because of her, I was accepted into the Bay Area acting world.

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

SD: As I was learning my craft I took jobs anywhere around the Bay: City Lights, Town Hall, CenterRep, Actors Theatre, Phoenix Theatre, Bus Barn.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

SD: We had our first show in 2003.

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

SD: We dreamed of what we could be and decided from the first moment to work as if we were on par with Steppenwolf or Royal Court or Donmar or Almeida … all theaters we admired, and the ones in London that we loved to visit.

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

SD: Our focus is on how plays impact the audience, not on any particular topic, niche or type. The goal is to bring people together, to touch and be touched. To share an experience and create compassion.

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

SD: My husband, Bill English, who is a walking library of dramatic works and knowledge. I learned to direct by sitting next to him for years and observing. My acting work was most influenced by Jean Shelton and Richard Seyd, and my courage has most been influenced by our patrons, who keep coming back and who are in the lobby crying or laughing afterward, confirming that what we are doing makes a difference.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the shutdown?

SD: We have the most incredible staff and board and patrons. The shutdown happened the week we were supposed to start previews for “Real Women Have Curves.” Everyone took the news so bravely. Actors lost the opportunity to share a beautiful story, our staff went to work calling ticket holders; ticket holders became donors and supporters. We’ve had to furlough many of our dear staff and are grateful that California unemployment will provide that extra $600 to them. On the other hand, we continued with announcing our season. We did a virtual announcement that has received more views and positive feedback than any event in the past.

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

SD: When we announced the season we did not include dates or actual order of the shows. That certainty is simply not available to us right now.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community overall?

SD: My vision (hope) is that we will come out of this ‘big pause’ stronger than ever. Our love and need for the arts have been solidified through its absence. The theatre has always been a place where people gather. Spacing, masks, gloves, hand sanitizer will be likely be the norm in the short term.

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts underway in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?

SD: It hasn’t impacted our plans other than inducing confusion as to how an artist or designer could be an employee.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

SD: I left my ‘day job’ to run the Playhouse in our 12th season. Besides acting and directing, managing the Playhouse is my day job.

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

SD: I love spending time with friends and family, and of course, my dog Emi.

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

SD: I love the arts, and have dabbled with drawing, and film — wish I was a trained dancer and pianist … maybe soon, if we keep staying home.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

SD: The words “no” and “but” are forbidden and to be replaced with “yes,” “and.” Honor the environment and keep it beautiful and strong. Be kind.

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

SD: If I wanted to buy one, wouldn’t getting two be great?

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

SD: Been framed.

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

SD: My soundtrack is more like the ocean waves, or breeze through the trees.

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

SD: Bracelets.

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

SD: None. Too big for my house.

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks” — have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

SD: When I was younger, for sure. Not anymore.

ASR: Favorite quote from a movie or stage play?

SD: It’s from “The Sound of Music” — “Somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must’ve done something good.”

-30-

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.

 

 

ASR’s Not So Random Question Time: Barry Martin and Taylor Bartolucci of Lucky Penny Productions

Aisle Seat Review begins 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.

***

Eleven years old and going strong, Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions is a standout North Bay theater company founded by Managing Director Barry Martin and Artistic Director Taylor Bartolucci (pictured below.) The company’s co-founders are great friends and lifelong theater veterans. Both perform multiple roles in every aspect of Lucky Penny’s operations. Recent productions include an exemplary “Cabaret,” plus “Bingo the Musical,” “9 to 5 the Musical,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” and “Five Course Love.”  

Website: www.luckypennynapa.com

Barry Martin and Taylor Bartolucci of Lucky Penny Productions.
Photo credit: Lucky Penny.

ASR: How did you get started in theater?

Barry M.: I think I was in theatre from the day I was born.

Taylor: I was four years old when I got my first taste of the theatre. My mom enrolled me in a local community theatre production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” where I flew around on the stage as Woodstock. I was immediately hooked.

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

Barry M.: I played Perchik in “Fiddler on the Roof” as a sophomore in high school. The first paying gig for me was doing summer stock after my junior year of college.

Taylor: “Charlie Brown” was followed by my first of many productions of “Annie.”  I started off as Molly then throughout the years played every single female role you could play—Annie, all of the Orphans, Star to Be, Hannigan, Lily, Boylan Sisters—all of them,  except Grace.

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

Barry M.: Board member for two, co-founder of one.

Taylor: Oh gosh, way too many to count.

ASR: When was your present company formed?

Taylor: Barry and I founded Lucky Penny Productions in the spring of 2009.

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

Barry M.: I expected we would be successful but didn’t expect to become as large as we have become, nor did I expect to have a physical location.

Taylor: I think from the very beginning we were dreamers, always envisioning grand things, but at the same time we were always busy working for the current show or for the future, so there wasn’t a lot of time to focus on future success, just the success of the project at hand.

It seems to me that every now and then at the end of the day, we would sit back and look at where the company was and go “Wow, that’s pretty darn cool. We are so grateful. OK, now let’s get back to work!”

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

Barry M.: Special focus is on giving people a memorable experience but we do not have a niche.

Taylor: I wouldn’t say we have a focus as much as we feel we have a responsibility to our local community, the Napa Valley, to expose them to all genres of theatre. Being one of the only theatre companies in Napa County, we select a season that reflects a little bit of everything to attract and satisfy the needs of all of our community members.  This includes musicals, non-musicals, classics and modern pieces.

… Trust your gut. Be tenacious. Focus on the audience experience.

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

Barry M.: If I am any better at it than I was in the olden days, it’s due to Taylor’s example. She has made me want to be a better actor and director.

Taylor: I would say our patrons and volunteers. If it wasn’t for their support and belief in us, we wouldn’t be where we are today. And for all of them, we are incredibly grateful.

ASR: It will likely be several months until theaters reopen. How is your company coping with the coronavirus shutdown?

Barry M.: Conserving cash, and making plans for strategic online activities.

Taylor: We are taking it day by day. We had to make the tough decision to postpone “Sweeney Todd,” the show we were about to open, and we have cancelled our April/May production of “The Quality of Life” and our June production of “The Great American Trailer Park Musical.”

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

Barry M.: No overall change to the approach but we expect to be leaner for at least a season.

Taylor: In all honesty, it hasn’t yet. I feel like we are in a bit of a holding pattern right now until we receive more information—which I assume we will be getting within the next few weeks. Once we know how much longer we will be practicing social distancing and bans on events, we can look into any necessary changes to our upcoming season.

ASR: How do you envision the future for your company? For the theater community overall?

Barry M.: We will be back with no substantial change in how we do things. In the larger view, the world will always need theatre. The forms it takes may continue to change.

Taylor: Like Barry said—we will be back at it as soon as we can!

ASR: Almost forgotten with the pandemic is the crisis caused in the performing arts by the passage of Assembly Bill 5, requiring most workers to be paid the California minimum wage. There are multiple efforts underway in Sacramento to get performing artists exempted from this. Has AB5 affected your theater company’s plans?

Barry M.: AB5 was taking up a lot of my brain until two weeks ago. At some point I will have to focus on it again and resume efforts to get amendments carving out small non-profit theatres like ours. There is no path I can see that has us in compliance with the bill as currently enacted.

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

Barry M.: “Funny Girl,” “Hands on a Hardbody,” “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Taylor: Oh man…there are so many we have produced that I have been proud of for so many reasons…but if I had to pick three, I’d say:

“Funny Girl” because it was our first large scale musical, a lifelong dream of mine, and the show that really exposed us to a larger audience base.

“Hands on a Hardbody,” because it was such an incredibly beautiful and heart-filled show, and one that brought together different parts of our community to help put together (Soscol Auto Body, Wine Country Crossfit to name a few).

And “Clue: The Musical” because it was a show that was unknown, one that we were able to fully create from scratch, with a team of some of my best friends, and it brought so much joy to our audiences.

ASR: What are some of your least favorite plays? Care to share titles of those you would never produce — or never produce again?

Barry M.: “Grease” is terribly written even though the songs are good. “Urinetown” annoys me.

Taylor: I have to agree with Barry—I have never enjoyed the humor of “Urinetown,” even though lots of people have asked us to produce it. I’m also not a fan of (*gasp*) “In the Heights” or “Cats.” No big shocker there.

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

Barry M.:  “The Iceman Cometh.”

ASR: What is Shakespeare’s most underrated play?

Barry M.: I think there are only three or four worth doing and all the rest suck except as academic exercises. So for me none are underrated.

Taylor: “Titus Andronicus.” Maybe this comes to mind because we were just preparing to do “Sweeney Todd” at Lucky Penny.

ASR: Shakespeare’s most over-performed play?

Barry M.: “As You Like It” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” both a yawn.

Taylor: “Midsummer.”

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

Barry M.: Well, I have done several whole seasons building sets, so there’s that. Other than sets I like doing sound.

Taylor: Props. Definitely props.

ASR: How do you warm up before a performance? How do you relax after?

Barry M.: I hate warm-ups of all kinds and have no routine. Just tell me “places” and I’m ready to go. After a show I need at least 90 minutes and a minimum of two drinks to wind down. Not iced tea, either.

Taylor: Depends on the show. Like Barry, I’m not a huge warm-up person. If it’s a musical I will vocalize and make sure I’m warmed up in that capacity, but with non-musicals I don’t have a set regime. I do like to get to the theatre extra early and take my time getting ready. Plus, there is nothing like an empty theatre. It’s such a soothing place for me.

After a show I tend to have too much adrenaline to just go straight home, so I will typically grab a drink and hang out with cast members. If it’s a matinee I may jet home to see my kiddos before bedtime.

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

Barry M.: Trust your gut. Be tenacious. Focus on the audience experience.

Taylor: Be kind—the theatre world may seem big, but it ultimately is pretty darn small, and people will remember their experience with you. Be collaborative—your production and company will be so much better off utilizing the talent and ideas of your artists to the fullest. Be willing to step into any shoes—this means working front of house, making props, being on stage, working backstage, sweeping the floor. Not only does it familiarize you with every job that needs to be done so you know what you are asking of others, but you are the example. Be a great example.

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

Barry M.: When you build a theatre from the ground up together and keep it going ten years it’s a good friendship, so my friendship with Taylor Bartolucci means the most to me.

Taylor: My relationship with Barry. It’s not every day you have the chance to dream and work alongside your best friend. We complement each other very well in terms of how we make decisions, how we feel in certain situations and how we like to work.

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

Barry M.:  In college, the climactic sword fight on opening night between MacBeth and MacDuff started with MacBeth somehow getting his cape tangled in his crown and the audience laughed. Perfect climax to a truly cursed production of “The Scottish Play.”

Taylor: One that happened recently was a production where a very dramatic scene had two people fighting over a baby. When the person who wanted the baby grabbed it, the head popped off and bounced on the floor, while the other person had to keep crying and pretend that the head was still attached. It was truly a great exercise in acting as one of them grabbed it as quickly as possible and both actors kept going like nothing had happened.

ASR: The most excruciating screw-up?

Taylor: Years ago I was at a show at ACT in San Francisco. One of the actors forgot his line. He stopped, said he was going to rewind and start over. I vaguely remember it was the beginning of a monologue. He started again and got stuck, and started again.  This happened four times! The audience got pissed and started booing.

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

Barry M.: Exiting through our greenroom trying to find the bathroom, startling some actors… or throwing up into their popcorn (yeah) during a scene… or cutting across the stage to leave in the middle of a scene.

Taylor: Oh my goodness. In our theatre—a 97-seat black box—the audience is VERY up close and personal, so we have seen it all! From people in the audience talking back to cast members on stage mid-show, having panic attacks, sleeping—you name it.

ASR: Do you have a “day job?”

Barry M.: Two or three of them.

Taylor: I work for my family winery, Madonna Estate during the day. And we are currently having a special—20% off all wines!  Use the code 20OFF and LOCALS at checkout and I will deliver to your doorstep!

ASR: What are your interests outside of theater?

Barry M.:  All the news all the time, soccer, wine

Taylor: Family, friends, working out, country music, cooking.

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

Barry M.: I enjoy quality films but don’t care for most of the popular ones. I’m a big fan of classic films—Capra, Ford, Welles, etc.

Taylor: There are lots of things I would love to explore—playing musical instruments, creating visual art (painting, wall art, etc) but with a two-year-old, a one-year-old, the theatre and the winery, I am sadly short on time these days.

ASR: You discover a beautiful island on which you may build your own society. You make the rules. What are the first three rules you’d put into place?

Taylor:  Hmmm. OK:

1) Everyone clean up after themselves

2) It’s 5’o clock somewhere at all times

3) You don’t have to sleep but you need to stay in bed during naptime…

Oh wait, these are just my current stay at home rules with my kids. Sigh…

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

Barry M.: A timeshare.

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

Taylor: Barry already created one! It’s called “Good Talks with Taylor.” Sometimes the content is amusing, sometimes he thrusts the camera into my face when I’m annoyed, Other times I may or may not have had a drink or two. It’s always brought us some good laughs.

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

Barry M.: DUI, most likely. Mass murder would be most satisfying.

Taylor: I better not be arrested! Being married to a cop… should have some benefits!

ASR: A fashion accessory you like better than others?

Taylor: Not sure it’s something I like more than others, but I’ll take a good, useful pair of sunglasses on a sunny day.

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

Barry M.: Novel coronavirus. I’d mount up and ride it out of town.

Taylor:  Hmmm…can’t say there is anything I’d like to see blown up to a size that could attack me. Call me a wimp!

ASR: Theater people often pride themselves on “taking risks” — have you any interest in true risk taking, such as rock climbing, shark diving, bungee jumping, skydiving?

Barry M.: Nothing involving falling to my death or drowning interests me, for some reason. The risks I have taken in my life were not artificially imposed, they were real-life risks about financial security, family ties, and living the life I wanted to live.

Taylor: No, nothing that could physically harm me has ever been of interest. Give me a good juicy scene where I can cry and scream and be raw and real in front of strangers but ask me to jump out of a plane?!  NO WAY!

ASR: Favorite quote?

Taylor:  One of my all-time favorite quotes is actually from the song “She Will Be Loved” by Maroon 5: “It’s not always rainbows and butterflies—it’s compromise that moves us along. My heart is full and my doors always open, you can come anytime you want.”

-30-

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 Aisle Seat Review Pick! “Urinetown, the Musical” a Cautionary Diversion at Spreckels — by Barry Willis

Paying to pee is a way of life for the poor and downtrodden in the fictional neighborhood of Urinetown. Managed with mendacity by water-and-waste management firm Urine Good Company, “amenities” dot the urban landscape, with admission fees so high that residents scramble all day to get enough money to relieve themselves—a high-pressure situation that foments rebellion if not resolution.

At Spreckels Performing Arts Center through March 1, “Urinetown, the Musical” celebrates many of the conceits of traditional musical theater while skewering others. The familiar plot elements—oppressive overlords, rebellious poor, star-crossed lovers from opposite sides of the conflict, a desperate kidnapping—have all been exploited by playwrights for centuries.

What makes this darkly-themed show unusual is its coupling of these reliable plot elements with upbeat Broadway song-and-dance productions, and its self-conscious stance as a piece of “metatheater” that announces itself and its intentions directly to the audience through UGC’s chief enforcer Officer Lockstock (David L. Yen), whose main connection to the Urinetown residents is through the likable character of Little Sally (Denise Elia-Yen).

“Urinetown, the Musical” is tremendous production…

Theater fans of long experience will note similarities in theme, plot, characters and music with many other productions. “Urinetown” is in solid traditional territory there.

Tim Setzer shines as UGC’s evil chief executive Caldwell B. Cladwell, the “toilet tycoon,” as described by ASR critic Nicole Singley. His toady-laden office includes Senator Fipp (Michael Arbitter), a legislator doing his patriotic best to win congressional approval for a system-wide increase in toilet admission fees. Recently graduated from the world’s most expensive university, Cladwell’s beautiful daughter Hope (Julianne Thompson Bretan) is about to join her father’s management team but is taken hostage by restroom-deprived rebels. In the process, she develops sympathy for their cause—mirroring the real-world fate of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst in a 1974 kidnapping staged by would-be revolutionaries—and falls in love with their charismatic leader Bobby Strong (Joshua Bailey).

“Urinetown” cast shows class dance moves

The stark set by Eddy Hansen and Eliabeth Bazzano is the perfect venue for this musical misadventure, enhanced by projections from Chris Schloemp.

Lucas Sherman’s small orchestra is dazzling. Performances range from good to superb, with especially good efforts by Bailey and Bretan, Yen, Setzer, and Karen Pinomaki as Josephine Strong, Bobby’s devoted mother. ScharyPearl Fugitt is a standout as Urinetown rebel Soupy Sue, and as Cladwell’s secretary. Her dancing is especially enjoyable. A large and exemplary cast fills out the remaining roles.

“Urinetown” has an impressive cast!

“Urinetown, the Musical” is tremendous production—not perfect, but huge fun with a depressing message at its core: sugar-coated theatrical medicine. Yes, resources are shrinking and the population is growing. It’s not a pleasant prospect, but we can all delight in the irony as we head for the abyss.

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.

 

ProductionUrinetown, the Musical
Written byMark Holman and Greg Kotis
Directed byJay Manley
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough March 1st
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$12-$36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

An Aisle Seat Review Pick! Lovely, Bold “Tiny Beautiful Things” at SF Playhouse — by Barry Willis

Cast and Crew of ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ at SF Playhouse. Director Bill English is up-center-left in jacket.

An online advice columnist discovers that she is a wellspring of wisdom and empathy in “Tiny Beautiful Things” at SF Playhouse, through March 7.

Before each performance, Playhouse Artistic Director Bill English delivers a curtain speech in which he reiterates that his company envisions their theater as an “empathy gym” where performers and audience alike get to flex their emotional muscles. The speech couldn’t be more appropriate than it is for “Tiny Beautiful Things” developed by Nia Vardalos from the autobiographical book by Cheryl Strayed.

English directs Susi Damilano as “Sugar,” the initially reluctant advice columnist, and Mark Anderson Phillips, Kina Kantor, and Jomar Tagatac as Sugar’s various correspondents, who seek guidance on everything from the intricacies of love to matters of life and death. Sugar’s no Ph.D. psychologist but simply a woman of vast personal experience—far more vast than she first understands—who digs deep to deliver heartfelt consolation and hope to her readers, often delivered with gentle humor.

Kina Kantor, Susi Damilano, Jomar Tagatac, and Mark Anderson Phillips make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches together.

Damilano is confident and sly as Sugar, who goes repeatedly to her refrigerator for refills of white wine and emotional conviction. At first, amused by her work, she soon discovers that she’s dealing with serious issues, and rises to the challenge.

… a well-deserved standing ovation.

The play’s dramatic structure is a recitation of letters, each beginning with “Dear Sugar,” spoken and acted with palpable gravitas by Damilano’s three supporting actors. Part literary fugue and part call-and-response, the recitation continues in a rolling rhythm throughout the play’s 85 minutes, reaching a crescendo when Sugar incites her readers to find love in their hearts for everything that life throws at them.

Letter Writer #3 (Jomar Tagatac) takes in Sugar’s (Susi Damilano) words of wisdom in ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ at San Francisco Playhouse.

It’s a beautiful moment, on a dreamscape of suspended metal poles (set design by Jacquelyn Scott) evocatively illuminated by lighting designer Michael Oesch. Unfortunately, its impact is diminished by an extended continuation of letters and responses, as if Vardalos couldn’t decide what to keep and what to cut. It’s a not-so-unusual theatrical circumstance of less-could-be-more with more careful editing.

Even so, “Tiny Beautiful Things” is a rare undertaking and within its limits, a sparkling gem. Author Cheryl Stayed was in the audience on opening night, and got a well-deserved standing ovation. The world could do well with more empathetic advisors like her and fewer snarky commentators.

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

 

ProductionTiny Beautiful Things
Written byAdapted by Nia Vardalos from the book by Cheryl Strayed.

Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman, Thomas Kail and Nia Vardalos.
Directed byBill English
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThrough March 7th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Websitehttps://www.sfplayhouse.org
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$35 - $125
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 Review PICK! Cinnabar’s “Ripcord” is an Uproarious Good Time — by Barry Willis

Two widows battle for control of a room in a residential retirement center in “Ripcord” at Cinnabar Theater through February 16.

Laura Jorgensen and Kate Brickley star as combative roommates Abby and Marilyn, respectively, in David Lindsay-Abaire’s elegantly conceived comedy. Author of “Good People,” “Rabbit Hole,” and many other excellent plays, Lindsay-Abaire is at the top of his game in this “Odd Couple”-inspired story of a cranky loner (Abby) and her attempt to drive out her ceaselessly upbeat roomie.

With momentum like a speeding truck, the script’s inherently compelling pacing is made more so under the brilliant direction of James Pelican, who gets his talented six-member cast to hit every beat at precisely the right moment. It’s one hilarious ride, with moments of melancholy as texture and spice.

…what may prove to be one of the most uproarious comedies this season!

Jorgensen and Brickley are perfectly cast, supported by Kyle Stoner as Scotty, the long-suffering orderly who brings them their meals and medications and tries his best to keep the two from each other’s throats. Sarah McKeregan and Chad Yarish are superb—and superbly funny—as Marilyn’s daughter Colleen and son-in-law Derek, among other roles, while the versatile John Browning appears as each woman’s adult son, a bit of casting that may induce confusion in some viewers. Even so, the cast of “Ripcord” is among the most evenly-balanced to appear onstage so far this year.

Laura Jorgensen and Kate Brickley – Photo courtesy of Eric Chazankin.

Scenic designer Joseph Elwick’s quick-change sets help propel the story, which includes a sky-diving adventure—hence, the title—that’s part of Abby and Marilyn’s continually-escalating series of challenges to each other. Will they go down fighting or learn to live not-so-happily ever after? Closing weekend will reveal all to those quick enough and lucky enough to score tickets for what may prove to be one of the most uproarious comedies this season.

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

 

ProductionRipcord
Written byDavid Lindsay-Abaire
Directed byJames Pelican
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Feb. 16th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$20 – $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

 

An ASR Theater Review: Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” a Short Snooze at ACT – by Barry Willis

Tony Hale as Guy in “Wakey, Wakey” at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater.

A dying man lectures the audience on the wonders of life in Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” at the American Conservatory Theater, through February 16.

Former TV star Tony Hale (“Arrested Development,” “Veep”) and veteran actress Kathryn Smith-McGlynn bring nuance and conviction to a muddled script directed by Anne Kauffman, its title not a reference to “woke culture” but apparently an admonition to be alert and conscious and rejoice in all that life has to offer including its inherent contradictions and dead-ends.

The piece opens with Hale’s character Guy lying half-clad on the stage and proceeds to having him engage in an addled monologue in his pajamas while sitting in a wheelchair. Some of his ramblings are absurd observations, a few are poignant remembrances, but most are simply non sequiturs strung end-to-end, all accompanied by old home movies and odd bits of eye candy projected on a huge screen behind him, ostensibly controlled by a small remote with which he continually fumbles. The jumble of letters and misspelled words in the projections  is a recurring gambit, perhaps symbolic of the loss of cognition suffered by those nearing the end of their tenure on earth—or perhaps not so symbolic, and simply  comedic distractions inserted by the playwright to punch up the entertainment value.

This piece has potential…but need(s) much more development to justify putting on such an esteemed stage as ACT’s.

Such confusion is rampant throughout the 80 minutes of “Wakey, Wakey,” a piece of so-called “metatheater” that attempts to confound many of the traditions of live theater. Eno is a trendy playwright whose “The Realistic Joneses” has been performed by many companies and has been generally well-received. His “Middletown” is a pointless exercise in attempting to update Thorton Wilder’s classic “Our Town.”  “Wakey, Wakey” continues the pointlessness, right up to and including the moment when Guy expires, launching a deluge of bright balloons and celebratory music.

Eno may have drawn inspiration from Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist who, while dying of pancreatic cancer, delivered motivational talks about achieving childhood dreams. The script’s amateur construction aside, Hale does a marvelous job holding the attention of the audience and conveying his character’s constantly mutating state of energy and awareness.

Kathryn Smith-McGlynn as Lisa (left) and Tony Hale as Guy in “Wakey, Wakey” at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater.

Smith-McGlynn is tremendously confident and sensitive as hospice nurse Lisa, who comes in late to check on him. She also appears as a community college substitute teacher in the opening sketch “The Substitution,” in which Eno conflates a cultural history lesson with driver’s education. This short piece has potential, as does “Wakey, Wakey,” but both of them need much more development to justify putting them on such an esteemed stage as ACT’s.

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

 

ProductionWakey, Wakey
Written byWIll Eno
Directed byAnne Kauffman
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough Feb 16th
Production AddressAmerican Conservatory Theater, Geary Theater
415 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 749-2228
Tickets$15 – $110
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script2/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

 

An Aisle Seat Review: Past and Present Collide in MTC’s “Noura” – by Barry Willis

David and Ibrahim (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne)

An Iraqi immigrant family finds a Christmas holiday gathering and promise of a bright future sullied by the momentum of the past in Heather Raffo’s “Noura,” at Marin Theatre Company through February 9. 

Escapees from the destroyed city of Mosul, the family of three—Noura, her husband Tareq, and their young son Yazen—share a spacious New York City apartment, one decorated with an oversized Christmas tree but little else. Their space (set design by Adam Rigg) has the disheveled, semi-organized look of a temporary refugee camp, a reflection of Noura’s sense of disconnectedness despite the fact that her family has been in the US eight years, and has gained American citizenship and Anglicized names so that they might be better assimilated. Easier said than achieved, as this fascinating if uneven production proves over the course of its approximately ninety minutes.

The Christmas season is especially difficult for Noura (Denmo Ibrahim), who longs for the life she knew in her home city—family, friends, neighbors of multiple ethnicities and religions— an extended community that was destroyed in the wake of the US invasion. Tareq (Mattico David) is an emergency room physician who seems pretty much Americanized until confronted by the arrival of a holiday visitor, Maryam (Maya Nazzal), a fellow refugee they’ve been sponsoring who shares complicated ties to their past lives in Mosul. Her impending arrival is a source of anxiety for Noura as she makes preparations. A physics student in California, young Maryam hopes to land a job as a weapons designer with the US Department of Defense.  

Ibrahim beautifully portrays her character’s abiding sense of loss and ambiguity . . .”

Maryam’s aspirations don’t seem to have any effect on Noura and Tareq, nor on their doctor friend Rafa’a (Abraham Makany), also an exile from Mosul, but the fact that she is unmarried and pregnant—both by choice—throws Tareq into a tailspin. An independent young woman with no apparent need for a man is a situation he simply can’t cope with: thousands of years of macho Arab culture upended by one modern independent feminist, resounding proof that they’ve left the old world behind. The emotional repercussions from this and other conflicts resonate off the stage and into the audience as the four adults and one boy (Valentino Herrera) struggle to make the holiday a pleasant one. 

The Cast of MTC’s “Noura” (Photo Credit: Kevin Berne)

All four adult actors are excellent. Ibrahim and David in particular are able to mine emotional nuances that actors with lesser skills might not manage. Some of their dramatic expertise must certainly be the work of director Kate Bergstrom, but there are holes in the story that detract from its intended effect. Why, for example, do these Iraqi-Americans not raise even one word of dismay over Maryam’s stated career agenda, when their entire country was demolished by high-tech weaponry and the medieval mentality behind it? Tareq must make a decent income from his emergency room work, but they still can’t afford some basic furniture? Then there are Noura’s recurring smoke-filled reveries of the life she once knew, with no counterbalancing embrace of the future’s potential. 

Noura lives in limbo between then and now, unable to let go and unwilling to move on. It’s a heartbreaking situation, the immigrant’s plight, one not understood by Americans intent on “reaching closure” as quickly and painlessly as possible. Ibrahim beautifully portrays her character’s abiding sense of loss and ambiguity, repeated several times with minor variations in the extended final scene. Playwright Raffo might better have chosen one powerful statement and let the curtain fall, rather than hammer the audience with what they’ve already learned is Noura’s unhappy truth. Not that the story needs to be tied up in a tidy little bundle of happy-ever-afterness, but a clear ending would enhance the play’s impact.

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

 

ProductionNoura
Written byHeather Raffo
Directed byKate Bergstrom
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough February 9th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$25 – $70
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! Quirky, Wonderful “Heisenberg” at Left Edge Theatre – by Barry Willis

Rider and Craven (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

A seemingly chance encounter between a mature London butcher and a younger woman prompts  unpredictable developments in Simon Stephens’s “Heisenberg,” at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through February 2.

Directed by Carla Spindt, the two-actor, six-scene piece takes its name from German physicist Werner Heisenberg, whose famous “uncertainty principle” means, in its largest sense, that we can’t really be sure about what we think we know. It opens with Alex (John Craven) sitting calmly on a park bench when quite unbidden, Georgie (Shannon Rider) approaches and kisses him on the neck—the first time they’ve met. She introduces herself and gushes almost uncontrollably while he looks on befuddled—clearly this is a “red flag” moment but he plays along, listening attentively and politely without offering encouragement. 

It’s an extremely odd first encounter. In the second one, having done some minor detective work via Google, she’s tracked him down at his butcher shop, and comes on even stronger, this time with a completely different tale about who she is and why she’s interested in him. Amused and flattered by the unexpected attention, he’s again receptive but does not encourage. Craven maintains his character’s distance throughout, a mix of caution and curiosity, while the energetic Rider pours out ever-more-fanciful tales that culminate in a confession that she hasn’t seen her adult son in years and needs to go to America to find him.

. . . a fascinating dance, a true theatrical pas de deux.”

Craven and Rider (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

As the two become friendlier, her various veils of hyperactive identity fall away but it’s still never clear to Alex or the audience (or possibly to Georgie herself) which part of her is real and which is not—a maddening and very funny scenario. Having accepted that Georgie is off-kilter but probably harmless, Alex makes his peace with the situation’s unpredictability and goes along for what proves to be a lovely ride. It’s a fascinating dance, a true theatrical pas de deux.

Both of them veteran performers, Craven and Rider are fully committed to this delightfully ambiguous yet somehow totally believable piece of magical realism—Craven the embodiment of fascinated reticence, Rider a whirlwind of imaginative insistence. The drama and the comedy are equally enhanced by sound designer Joe Winkler’s lovely tango music and Chris Schloemp’s marvelous projections on an elegant set by Argo Thompson.  

Is the May/December relationship between Georgie and Alex believable? Is the ambiguity of their story plausible? Yes. No. Maybe. In a universe of infinite outcomes, everything is possible—perhaps even perfect. That’s the beguiling beauty of “Heisenberg.”

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

 

ProductionHeisenberg
Written bySimon Stephens
Directed byCarla Spindt
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough February 2nd
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$15-$42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An Aisle Seat Review: “Buddy” A Rocking Good Time at 6th Street – by Barry Willis

Kyle Jurrasic as Buddy Holly (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

1950s musical icon Buddy Holly had a short but prolific career. With 12 top 100 hits within three years, his sweet lyrics and catchy rhythms proved to have enduring influence on many artists that followed, including the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

Now in an extended run through February 16 at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse, “Buddy—The Buddy Holly Story” follows his meteoric rise from the country music scene in Lubbock, Texas, to New York City and elsewhere—including his final performance in Clearlake, Iowa before a plane crash that took his life and those of fellow performers Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. Holly was only 22 and might have gone on to a long illustrious career, but the catalog he left behind is still a source of inspiration and joy.

The show is a “jukebox musical”—one that conveys the biographical facts interspersed with Holly’s many hits. Bay Area newcomer Kyle Jurrasic is excellent as Holly, capturing his signature look, song styling, and guitar playing. That’s to be expected of an actor who’s played the role multiple times. Director D.J. Salisbury also has extensive experience with the show, having directed and/or choreographed seven previous productions.

The show’s infectious energy carries it along beautifully…”

The large cast is generally tremendous, especially Seth Dahlgren as the Big Bopper, Marc Assad as Valens, and Charlie Whitaker as Maria Elena Santiago, Holly’s wife. Husband-and-wife team John and Jennifer Bannister are superb in multiple roles, while music-and-dance numbers are handled adroitly by triple-threat Trevor Hoffman with Selena Elize Flores and Jennifer Barnaba. Nick Ambrosio is comically delightful as Jerry Allison, Holly’s drummer.

Opening night was marred by a few technical glitches—what the heck was a battery-powered transmitter doing attached to a 1950s guitar?—but that didn’t seem to bother the sold-out crowd clearly assembled to revel in the music, delivered with gusto and authenticity over the course of nearly two-and-a-half hours. The show’s infectious energy carries it along beautifully, but as has been true for several recent 6th Street productions, the set is minimal—in this case little more than three pairs of flats decorated with neo-50s graphics, that serve as everything from office walls to elevator doors. Production values are otherwise fairly high—costumes, lighting, and sound. The skimpy set is all that holds this show back from a higher rating, but it may not be a concern for the many Buddy Holly fans likely to buy tickets.

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

 

ProductionBuddy—The Buddy Holly Story
Written byAlan Janes
Directed byD. J. Salisbury
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough February 16th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$35 – $48
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

An Aisle Seat Review PICK! “Harry Potter” a Mind-Blower at the Curran by Barry Willis

Unlimited budgets can yield miracles. Especially in theater. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” at the Curran through July 12, is one of those miracles.

And yes, the July 12 closing date is correct—a six-month run! The large-capacity Curran (nearly 1700 seats) was closed for a couple of years for a massive renovation, only to have some of the new seating and carpeting removed to build out the realistic refugee camp for last spring’s fantastic production of “The Jungle.” It’s been redecorated again—this time with carpeting and fabric wall coverings embellished with the Hogwarts logo.

The unlimited budget is apparent both the moment you step into the theater and the moment the curtain rises for Part One, which manages to pack in more theatrical illusions than any dozen blockbuster shows in Las Vegas, including characters that step out of seemingly solid walls, or seemingly solid walls that absorb characters the way a sponge draws water, characters that instantly morph into other characters, characters that vanish only to reappear swimming in the sky, characters that emerge and exit through a burning fireplace, ghostly spirits that hover above the audience, and graffiti that somehow appears throughout the theater’s huge ceiling, like a celestial pattern in an observatory. Then there’s the amazing choreography of swirling capes and their disappearing owners (Steven Hoggett, movement director). Those are a few highlights.

…It’s a wild adventure.

The story by J.K.Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany has the now-adult Harry Potter (John Skelley) toiling away as a wizard in the Ministry of Magic, and about to send his son Albus (Benjamin Papac) off to school at his alma mater, where Albus meets Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger), a boy his age who’s the son of dark lord Draco Malfoy (Lucas Hall).

The two of them form an uneasy but solid friendship and are soon continuing the struggle against the evil Lord Voldemort (Andrew Long) and his offspring. It’s a wild adventure. The fanciful, quick-moving, and action-packed tale consumes nearly two-and-a-half hours and will keep you riveted to your seat the entire time. It’s a mind-blowing, all-consuming production populated by four or five dozen ace performers.

Among the amazing factoids around this show are stories of the two young actors who so magnificently embody Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy. “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is reputedly Papac’s first professional stage acting gig, and Steiger’s prior experience includes a Shakespeare festival in Scranton, Pennsylvania. They nonetheless meet the world-class challenge of what must be an exhausting, demanding production, including Saturday and Sunday performances that include both Part One and Part Two, where the two boys and their Hogwarts associates meet Voldemort’s daughter for a final showdown.

Should your time or budget restrict you to seeing only Part One or Part Two, note that Part One is the more compelling of the two, and more spectacle-intensive. Real Potterites, of course, will want to see both, but casual visitors will likely enjoy the first one more. Part Two’s extensive exposition and lengthy dialog will be better suited for those who’ve read all the books and seen all the films.

Casual theatergoers not in the Potter camp would do well to read up on the mythology before the show—a brief synopsis of which is included in the playbill. Even those who don’t know Harry Potter from Harry Houdini will be astounded by this production. For true believers—they are legion—it’s a religious experience.

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.

 

ProductionHarry Potter and the Cursed Child
Written byJ.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany
Music and Lyrics by Benj Pakek and Justin Paul
Directed byJohn Tiffany
Producing CompanyCurran Theater Co.
Production DatesJuly 12th
Production AddressCurran Theater
445 Geary St.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone415.358.1220
Tickets$59 – $289
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

 

An Aisle Seat Review Theater PICK! “Sound of Music” Climbs Every Mountain (almost) at SSU by Barry Willis

One of the most beloved musicals of all time is enjoying a sumptuous revival at Sonoma State University’s capacious Evert B. Person Theatre through December 8.

With its own theater facilities still under renovation, the Santa Rosa Junior College Theater Arts department has teamed up with its counterpart at Sonoma State University to put on a hugely ambitious and mostly successful production of “The Sound of Music,” the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic about the Austrian von Trapp family and their escape from Nazi oppression shortly after the Germans annexed their country. It’s also, of course, the story of Maria Rainer (Arianna LaMark), the perpetually upbeat would-be nun who becomes governess to the seven von Trapp children, and ultimately, the wife of their widowed father, Captain von Trapp (Michael Coury Murdock).

… …a wonderfully engaging performance… …

The show is rampant with tunes that won instant popularity and continue to be favorites today: “The Sound of Music,” “My Favorite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi,” “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” “How Can Love Survive?,” and “Climb Every Mountain,” all of them performed brilliantly by a huge cast on a huge stage, backed by a superb ten-piece orchestra led by music director Janis Dunsun Wilson. Everything about this show is enormous, from the steeply-raked large-capacity Person Theatre to the fantastically oversized stage set and towering backdrop on which is projected an image of the Matterhorn as it looks at various times of day and night—set and projection design by Peter Crompton.

Director Laura Downing-Lee has coaxed a wonderfully engaging performance from her cast of nearly three dozen performers, all of whom deliver without a bobble. Vocal performances are tremendous—LaMark and Murdock excel here—and the acting is almost as good, with the best performances given by Heather Buck as Elsa Schrader and Crystal McDougall as Mother Abbess. LaMark wins hearts with “The Sound of Music,” “My Favorite Things,” and several other songs, while Murdock prompts tears with his treatment of “Edelweiss” in the penultimate scene. Madigan Love is excellent as Liesl, the oldest of the von Trapp brood, although her handling of the guitar makes it appear as if she’s just discovered the instrument.

There are a couple of unfortunate glitches that detract from the pervasive magic, especially the fact that the backdrop isn’t stretched tight enough to avoid billowing. When it does, the Matterhorn appears to be breathing. A bit of a letdown comes at the end, when the von Trapps decide to strike out on foot through the mountains to Switzerland. Downing-Lee wisely has them tackle the steep stairs out of the theater—in the dark, as must have happened in real life—but a bit of subdued lighting on them as they climb would heighten the drama. The same is true when they reach the top and look back at their home. Instead of simply standing there in the dark then leaving through an “Exit” door, they might linger for a moment behind a bit of set indicating that they’ve reached Switzerland and freedom.

But those are small suggestions intended only to take this already tremendous production one notch higher. Even without them, it’s guaranteed to please. “The Sound of Music” is among the greatest feel-good shows of all time; SRJC’s affordable tickets make this version an absolute bargain.

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.

 

ProductionThe Sound of Music
Written byBook by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse

Music by Richard Rodgers, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed byLaura Downing-Lee
Producing CompanySanta Rosa Junior College Theatre Arts Deptment in conjunction with Sonoma State University
Production DatesThrough December 8th
Production AddressEvert B. Person Theater at Sonoma State University

1801 E. Cotati Ave.

Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitetheatrearts.santarosa.edu
Telephone707-527-4307
Tickets$15-$25
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

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

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

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

…a stunning ensemble effort by five extremely talented actors.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

An Aisle Seat Theater Review PICK! Astounding “Mother of the Maid” at Marin Theatre Company by Barry Willis

Isabelle Arc (Sherman Fracher) and her daughter, Joan Arc (Rosie Hallett)
Photo: Kevin Berne

A mother’s love has seldom been as brilliantly or movingly depicted as it is in Jane Anderson’s “Mother of the Maid,” at Marin Theatre Company through December 15.

Directed by Jasson Minadakis, it’s a story of a mother’s devotion to one of history’s most famous and most controversial figures. Joan of Arc had a short life: she was only 17 when she led the French army against the English during the last gasp of the Hundred Years War, and was only 19 when she was burned at the stake as a heretic. Her parents endured it all—Joan’s recurring visions, irrepressible spirit, indomitable purpose, and tragic end. Her father Jacques (played by the always rock-solid Scott Coopwood) witnessed her execution and suffered psychosomatic blindness a result, and is said to have died of grief shortly thereafter.

While it’s Joan’s trajectory that propels the piece, it’s really the story of her mother Isabelle (the astounding Sherman Fracher) whose devotion is so strong that she not only bathes and comforts her daughter on the morning of her execution but in the decades after, pursues clearing her name, taking her case all the way to the Pope in Rome. Joan of Arc was ultimately exonerated of heresy and declared a saint, in large part due to Isabelle’s persistence.

Isabelle (Sherman Fracher) sees Joan (Rosie Hallett) for the first time in months.
Photo: Kevin Berne.

The Church permeated every aspect of life in the Middle Ages in Europe—business, finance, government, military, and private family affairs. It was an age of superstition and savagery—despite the Biblical commandment “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” with Church approval, governments small and large squandered economic and human resources on one pointless war after another—a tradition that continued right into the modern era. Illiterate sheepherders, the Arc family had seen their friends and neighbors, the Lebecs, hacked to death by the English.

…as near-perfect a production as we may ever see on a Bay Area stage.

From early adolescence, Joan (Rosie Hallett) had visions of visitations from St. Catherine that instilled in her a deep conviction that her purpose was to lead France to liberty—a belief shared by local clergyman Father Gilbert (Robert Sicular), who pleads her case with church officials. Father Gilbert is a kind-hearted go-between, and Isabelle respects him. Jacques is more a hardened realist but knows better than to argue points of theology or to question authority. Joan’s brother Pierre (Brennan Pickman-Thoon) is a teenager enamored with playing soldier—he couldn’t be prouder of his armor and his sword, and is Joan’s companion in battle, which we do not see enacted onstage.

Joan (Rosie Hallett) dictates a letter while her parents, Isabelle (Sherman Fracher) and Jacques Arc (Scott Coopwood), observe.
Photo: Kevin Berne.

Except for the opening scene—in the Arc home, implied by a structure of rough open timbers—all of the action takes place on a dauntingly beautiful set by Sean Fanning, a collection of floating Gothic arches that serves as Church, palace, and prison, made ethereal or oppressive by Chris Lundahl’s exquisite lighting. Marin Theatre Company regular Liz Sklar does a fine turn as a lady of the court, who befriends Joan (and subsequently, Isabelle) and wins her favor with the Dauphin, future King Charles VII of France. Isabelle’s visit to court involved walking three hundred miles over rough terrain, a journey she undertook multiple times. Fancher conveys Isabelle’s exhaustion and inexhaustible devotion as if they are simply what any mother would endure for her daughter.

Anderson’s use of modern dialect is an act of genius. The Arc family speaks in a sort of hybrid Irish/Minnesota accent, while the clergy and ‘noble folk’ speak more formally. The dialog might have been delivered in a sort of pseudo-Shakespearean with French accents, but putting it in modern language makes the whole story more immediate, more real, and more applicable to our own time. 600 years after Joan of Arc, superstition and savagery are still the rule.

“Mother of the Maid” is a heartbreaking piece of theater. A mother’s devotion to her children is one of the fundamental forces of human existence. MTC deserves high praise for bringing it to the forefront of our consciousness. It’s simply brilliant—as near-perfect a production as we may ever see on a Bay Area stage.

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.

 

ProductionMother of the Maid
Written byJane Anderson
Directed byJasson Minadakis
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough Dec 15th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$10– $60
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An Aisle Seat Review! “Champions of Magic” an Astounding Show at the Golden Gate by Barry Willis

For the next few days, Bay Area theater fans have a rare opportunity to see the UK-based international touring show “Champions of Magic,” with twice-per-day performances through Dec. 1 at San Francisco’s downtown Golden Gate Theatre.

Five world-class illusionists and one aerialist/contortionist prove that classic theatrical magic is alive and well, with acts that include a mind-reader, a sleight-of-hand performer, an escape artist, and illusionists Strange & Young, who make people including themselves disappear and reappear instantly in ways that absolutely baffle and confound the audience.

Champions … is a wonderful departure from traditional theater and is suitable for entire families.

Aided by willing audience members, some little children, the sleight-of-hand artist gets an amazing amount of mileage from a Five of Clubs pulled from her deck, cut-and-torn paper, and various ordinary objects including rubber bands. Audience volunteers also propel the mind-reader, who on opening night correctly guessed names and relationships of random people pulled onstage. He also identified one woman as a Navy veteran and former presidential guard, without any apparent prior knowledge. How this is possible will keep you wondering long after the show is over.

The escape artist revives some of Houdini’s best tricks, including getting out of a straitjacket while submerged in a tank of water locked from the outside, a performance guaranteed to induce anxiety in anyone with a hint of claustrophobia. Strange & Young offer plenty of comedic patter as they leap about with a dynamic, quick-moving illusionist spectacle worthy of Las Vegas.

“Champions of Magic,” in fact, is the nearest thing to Las Vegas currently running in San Francisco, save the Cirque de Soleil production of “Amaluna” that runs into January. “Champions” is a wonderful departure from traditional theater and is suitable for entire families. The show’s run is short and if opening night is a good indicator, tickets may be in short supply. If dazzling spectacles appeal to you, do not miss this show.

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.

 

“Champions of Magic” International Touring Show

  • Golden Gate Theatre, San Francisco
  • Two shows daily through Dec. 1
  • Tickets: $59.99 to $169.99
  • Info: broadwaysf.com

Ratings:

  • Overall: 5 of 5
  • Performance: 5 of 5
  • Stagecraft: 5 of 5

An Aisle Seat Review Theater Review: Big Sprawling “Oliver!” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

Sold to the Undertaker – photo by Eric Chazankin

London in Charles Dickens’s time must have been close to hell on earth, choked with pollution, poverty, homelessness, and crime. “Oliver Twist,” the author’s second novel, depicts all this quite vividly. So does “Oliver!” the 1960 musical adaptation by Lionel Bart, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse through December 15.

The show’s requirement of many children in the cast prompts theater companies to present it in the hope of generating substantial ticket sales—all those kids have parents, relatives, and friends who must attend. But despite its huge popularity, it’s not a feel-good extravaganza like “Annie.” It’s a grim portrait of a poor orphan boy (Cecilia Brenner and Gus Jordan, in alternating performances) doing his best to survive in unbelievably adverse circumstance.

This includes falling in with a group of scuzzy adolescent hoodlums led by an old hustler named Fagin (David Yen), who fences their stolen goods in exchange for providing them a bit of safety and mentorship, aided by his youthful apprentice The Artful Dodger (Mario Herrera). These small-time criminals are in turn under the thumb of a really serious criminal named Bill Sykes (the imposing Zachary Hasbany), a malevolent force who doesn’t hesitate to kill people who displease him or get in his way.

…the performers are exuberantly entertaining across the whole range of acting, singing, and dancing…

Survival is the primary plot, but there are some compelling secondary plots too, including love affairs among the adults—especially between the doomed, pathetically mistreated Nancy (Brittany Law) and the dastardly Sikes. There’s also a meandering subplot about the hunt for Oliver’s family of origin that’s resolved near the end, as is Fagin’s reconsideration of his disreputable career.

Cecilia Brenner as Oliver-Mario Herrera as Dodger-photo by Eric Chazankin

6th Street’s show has a huge cast—it’s in many ways an all-star gathering of North Bay theatrical talent, who make substantial contributions to its success under director Patrick Nims. The set by Sam Transleau is equally huge, occupying the entirety of the big stage in the G.K. Hardt theater, save the space backstage where Ginger Beavers leads an excellent seven-piece band.

There’s some inexplicable gender-bending in the adult casting, but most of the performers are exuberantly entertaining across the whole range of acting, singing, and dancing (choreography by Joseph Favalora).

Oliver’s personal triumph is uplifting, and Fagin’s repentance satisfying, but the real appeal of the show—and perhaps, the reason for its enduring popularity—is the number of great songs in it. Many of them broke out as pop and jazz standards—especially Nancy’s heartbreaking showcase number, “As Long As He Needs Me.” The music alone recommends this show, while the rest of it works with admirable effort in every direction to sustain that level.

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

 

ProductionOliver!
Written byLionel Bart
Directed byPatrick Nims
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough December 15th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$22 – $38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance3.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?----

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acting and pacing are both first-rate…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

ProductionMother of the Maid
Written byJane Anderson
Directed byJasson Minadakis
Producing CompanyMarin Theatre Company (MTC)
Production DatesThrough Dec 15th
Production AddressMarin Theatre Company
397 Miller Avenue
Mill Valley, CA
Websitewww.marintheatre.org
Telephone(415) 388-5200
Tickets$10– $60
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! “Merman’s Apprentice” Delights at Sonoma Arts Live – by Barry Willis

Sutherland and Innocenti-Beem light up the stage in “Merman’s Apprentice” (Photo Credit: Miller Oberlin)

A young girl with stars in her eyes goes on the trip of a lifetime, and takes the audience with her, in “Merman’s Apprentice,” at Sonoma Arts Live through October 13.

It’s New York, 1970. Broadway legend Ethel Merman (Daniela Innocenti-Beem) is enjoying the zenith of her long career when into her life comes Muriel Plakenstein (Emma Sutherland), a 12-year-old runaway whose big dream is to be a Broadway star like Merman, her idol. Muriel happens to know everything about Ethel Merman, including every song she ever sang and obscure details of shows that ran decades earlier. An obsessive who will find fulfillment only in absorbing everything-Mermanesque, Muriel gets her wish, and in doing so fills a huge gap in Merman’s life. 

The cast of Merman’s Apprentice (Photo Credit: Miller Oberlin)

The adult woman and the runaway form an almost-instant bond, reinforced early in the first act by the joyfully infectious song “Chums,” one that sets the emotional tone for the entire production. Innocenti-Beem is amazing as mentor/fairy godmother to a goofy talented girl with single-minded devotion toward becoming the next Ethel, as is 17-year-old Sutherland in conveying the innocence, enthusiasm, and vulnerability of adolescence. Playing younger is difficult for all performers, and Sutherland does it perfectly. As the story progresses, Muriel meets legendary musical theater impresario David Merrick (Patrick Barr), enjoys performances at the St. James Theatre, and dinners-and-drinkfests at Sardi’s. She also becomes Merman’s permanent house guest. Stars in her eyes, indeed.

Part fable, part fairy tale, and all heart, . . . a show that will delight theater fans of all varieties and ages.”

Playwright and lyricist Stephen Cole was a close friend of the real Ethel Merman in her later years and captures her signature snappy repartee perfectly. Innocenti-Beem, a huge-voiced stalwart of North Bay musical theater, has often been compared to Merman, including her penchant for improvisational off-color humor. When Cole met Innocenti-Beem for the weeks-long refinement process that rendered this show, he declared her “more Ethel than Ethel was,” echoing what local critics have been saying for years. She soars in “Listen to the Trumpet Call” late in the first act. One of Innocenti-Beem’s “Apprentice” costumes is the spectacular red dress she wore in a recent production of “Hello, Dolly,” a Merman signature role. 

Cole’s musical collaborator David Evans has cooked up a couple dozen tunes that evoke the glory days of big brash Broadway musicals. “Apprentice” is set in 1970 but it references an earlier, more innocent age—there’s no hint of the Vietnam War or the growing protest movement, nor of the era’s incendiary black radicalism. It’s as if 1955 were forever trapped in amber, but the music is tremendous, delivered by an ace seven-piece band under the direction of Sherrill Peterson. The songs all clearly reference blockbuster show tunes from the 1930s into the ‘60s. The finale seems to quote “Comedy Tonight,” the lead song from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” 

Holsworth and O’Brien as Mom and Pop (Photo Credit: Miller Oberlin)

Directors Larry Williams and Jaime Weisen Love have done something magical in bringing a production of this scale to the Rotary Stage. The large ensemble does an admirable job with Lissa Ferreira’s choreography on an impressive set by Gary Gonser, now recovering from a recent medical emergency. (Get healthy, Gary!) Sean O’Brien and Julia Holsworth are outstanding among the ensemble in their roles of Pop and Mom, respectively. Holsworth’s flat-footed shuffle is especially funny. The only real quibble with this world premiere is that the first act may be a bit overlong and the second act too short. It’s as if the second act needs one more song to balance the production. Cole and Evans can certainly supply this before the show goes to Broadway, as seems inevitable.

“Merman’s Apprentice” is a huge unabashed exercise in nostalgia. Part fable, part fairy tale, and all heart, it’s a show that will delight theater fans of all varieties and ages. The show and its stars are destined for much broader horizons, so catch it while you can.

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

 

 

ProductionMerman's Apprentice
Written byBook and Lyrics by Stephen Cole; Music by David Evans
Directed byJaime Weiser Love and Larry Williams
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThrough October 13th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone(866) 710-8942
Tickets$25 – $42
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Dated but Relevant “Top Girls” Opens ACT Season – by Barry Willis

Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), Dull Gret (Summer Brown), Marlene (Michelle Beck), Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), and Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal) recount their life stories at a dinner party in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls performing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater now through October 13, 2019.

Caryl Churchill’s “Top Girls” hasn’t been performed in the Bay Area in a long time. It’s been revived as the season opener at American Conservatory Theater, directed by Tamilla Woodard and running through October 13.

About a hard-charging female executive angling to move up the management ladder, the 37-year- old play has lost none of its relevance in the intervening decades, as is made dismayingly clear in several essays-with-statistics in “Words on Plays,” the fascinating booklet that accompanies the show’s playbill. Women still lag behind men in compensation and positions of authority. There’s nothing revelatory in that, but the piece has nonetheless acquired a bit of tarnish over the years.

Director Woodard pulls wonderfully committed performances from her eight-member cast…

At its core, “Top Girls” is a simple tale of a British career woman named Marlene (Michelle Beck), running from the limited opportunities of her working-class origins and pouring all her considerable energy into the pursuit of corporate power. Set in the early 1980s—the play debuted in ’82—it depicts Marlene maneuvering for an executive position even if it means displacing a male colleague who’s the sole support for his family of four. A Thatcherite, Marlene believes in meritocracy – the idea that the cream of society rises to the top – and dismisses the entitlement mentality of leftists and union workers.

Nell (Summer Brown) and Win (Rosie Hallett) arrive to work at the Top Girls Employment Agency in Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls performing at A.C.T.’s Geary Theater now through October 13, 2019.

As a manager in a busy employment agency, Marlene doesn’t gladly suffer fools. Her interviews with job-seekers are brusque, bordering on insulting, and she doesn’t hesitate to dominate her office-mates. They are not friends. But suffer she does, as we learn in the second act—from the slights she has showered on her family and the personal sacrifices she’s made seeking power in a man’s world. She doesn’t really have a life outside work.

The opening scene could be interpreted as evidence of Marlene’s suffering, and by extension, the suffering of all ambitious women. It’s a comically nightmarish dinner party featuring notable women fictional and historical: 19th-century adventurer Isabella Bird (Julia McNeal); Lady Nijo (Monica Lin), an 11th-century exile from the Japanese Imperial Court; the legendary Pope Joan (Rosie Hallett), thought to have reigned during the Middle Ages in the guise of a man; and Dull Gret (Summer Brown), a fearsome warrior immortalized by Brueghel. All bucked the patriarchy; the scene offers each an opportunity to tell her story. Each recitation adds fuel to Marlene’s furious purpose. It also allows all of them to riff simultaneously in multiple accents, an effect that’s literally a fugue of howling madwomen.

We get that they’re angry, even centuries after the fact, but from the audience’s point of view the scene is too long, consuming most of the first act. Here and there in the cacophony we understand a phrase or two, but for the most part, it’s as comprehensible as a long night of Dada poetry.

An esteemed British playwright, Churchill is no respecter of traditional temporal narrative or dramatic structure. The dinner scene—an exercise in art for art’s sake—is followed by an introduction to the employment service where Marlene works, and that, by a scene of two girls at play in a backyard—Kit (Lily D. Harris) and Angie (Gabriella Momah). The first act closes leaving viewers wondering how all this ties together.

 Michelle Beck and Monique Hafen at work at ACT.

The second act is both rebuttal to and redemption for the excesses of the first. In a scene of gut-wrenching earnestness, Marlene has a heart-to-heart with her sister Joyce (Nafeesa Monroe) in her kitchen, where we learn the roots of Marlene’s driving ambition and the nature of her relationship to her worshipful, enthusiastic, but dim-witted niece Angie. The final scene takes place a year before the preceding one, but makes solid dramatic sense.

The play’s difficulties and pretensions are offset by superb acting by a cast of eight women, all save Beck and Momah in dual roles. Performances range from good to exemplary, including Hallett as Win and Brown as Nell, two different but dynamically balanced office workers whose arch banter spices their otherwise tedious workdays. Harris is youngest-appearing of the cast—she looks to be in her late teens—and mid-way through the second act she does a fantastically funny turn as a job-seeker named Shona pretending to be much older.

Shona bluffs with enormous chutzpah and an increasingly absurd litany of business buzzwords during her interview with Nell. She doesn’t know much and the more she talks the more it shows, an expertly rendered comedic sketch that provoked spontaneous applause on opening night.

Aided by Barbara Samuels’s elegant lighting, set designer Nina Ball achieves something remarkable with “Top Girls”—an austere set evoking the coldness of the business world, and another one quite warm and cozy as Joyce’s home. The emergence of Joyce’s residence from far back to stage front is a marvelous effect.

Director Woodard pulls wonderfully committed performances from her eight-member cast, but the standout for this reviewer is Gabriella Momah as the lovable, sweet-natured but intellectually limited Shona. She’s an absolute delight, a bright ray of sunshine in this darkly-tinted story.

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

 

 

ProductionTop Girls
Written byCaryl Churchil
Directed byTamilla Woodard
Producing CompanyAmerican Conservatory Theater (ACT)
Production DatesThrough Oct 13th
Production AddressAmerican Conservatory Theater
415 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitewww.act-sf.org
Telephone(415) 834-3200
Tickets$25 – $102
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

An AISLE SEAT REVIEW! “Gypsy” a mixed bag at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

In “Gypsy,” the ultimate stage mother from hell comes roaring to life four times per week through October 20 at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse.

Broadway veteran Kathy Fitzgerald stars as Mama Rose, a thrice-divorced mother with two daughters, struggling to make a go of it on the waning Vaudeville circuit. With a gaggle of boy dancers, they manage to survive with an incredibly hokey act—so hokey, in fact, that it’s hard to believe that people actually paid good money to see it.

Carmen Mitchell works as Gypsy Rose Lee.

Rose is both the embodiment of never-say-die positive thinking and parental oppression, browbeating daughters June (Melody Payne) and Louise (Carmen Mitchell, excellent) into submission and forcing them to perform beyond their capacity — a syndrome that ultimately leads to June running off to find her own life with her new husband. Theater agent Herbie (Roger Michelson) tries desperately to become Mama Rose’s final husband, to no avail.

Near the end of the Vaudeville period, an inevitability denied to the last by her mother, Louise transforms from caterpillar to butterfly—and ultimately, into pop culture superstar Gypsy Rose Lee—after a life-changing experience with strippers in a Kansas City burlesque house. Her emergence into stardom is the bright light at the end of the story’s dark tunnel, one camouflaged by some of the most upbeat music ever composed.

There are … substantial talents in this show…

A collaboration by theater legends Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne and Stephen Sondheim, this more-or-less true story of perseverance and survival could make the most curmudgeonly cynic leave the theater whistling a happy tune. The show is jam-packed with gems from the American songbook, among them “Small World,” “Some People,” “Mr. Goldstone,” “Together, Wherever We Go,” “Let Me Entertain You,” and of course the deathless “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”

On leave from a production of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” Fitzgerald is a big draw—opening weekend was nearly sold-out. She’s an impassioned actor and a good singer with an odd habit of getting into a Sumo wrestler’s half-squat stance to launch big efforts. There are other substantial talents in this show as well, in particular the trio who appear as strippers—Elaine Jennings, Lillian Myers, and Tracy Hinman, all of whom tackle multiple roles. Zach Frangos is confident and appealing as Tulsa, and his dancing is superb. The early scenes feature a gaggle of cute kids, always a reliable strategy for selling tickets.

Gypsy cast at work in finale at 6th Street.

Opening weekend, the band under Paul Smith’s direction hit a dismaying number of sour notes, something that can only be interpreted as intentional in keeping with the low-rent venues where Mama Rose & Company are performing. A tall fellow, Smith tends to stand as he leads the band, and his bobbing head is a real distraction from the upper seats. Joseph Favolora’s choreography is compelling, and Pamela Johnson’s costumes are stunning. There doesn’t appear to have been much left in the production budget for sets, and Jason Jamerson did his best with what he had, resulting in the bare basics. This was the same issue that undermined 6th Street’s production of “La Cage aux Folles.”

This “Gypsy” is certainly enjoyable—how can anyone not love the music?—but, neither over-the-top nor over-the-moon, it’s far from a sumptuous production of this classic.

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

 

 

ProductionGypsy
Written byArthur Laurents, Jule Styne, and Stephen Sondheim
Directed byJared Sakren
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough Oct 20th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$35 – $46
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 REVIEW PICK! “Body Awareness” a Hit at Main Stage West – by Barry Willis

Body Awareness Week becomes a long hard slog for a psychology professor at a small Vermont college, in Annie Baker’s brilliant, sweet comedy at Main Stage West through September 22.

Lydia Revelos stars as Phyllis, the professor with ultra-orthodox feminist convictions, who first organized the event as “Eating Disorders Week” but expanded it to include dance performances by troupes from across the globe, and seminars on personal and social perceptions about the human body—in particular, the female body. This emphasis includes an exhibition of photos of nude women of all ages, done by a straight male photographer.

The photos, their subjects, and most of all the photographer’s gender, enrage her and cause upheaval with her lesbian partner Joyce (Nancy Prebilich), a high school teacher whose almost-adult son Jared is “on the Asperger’s spectrum” as it’s trendy to say. Jared (Elijah Pinkham) is a self-described “auto didact” obsessed with word origins—he aspires to be a lexicographer—and sex with girls, which he has never experienced. His awkward social skills exasperate his mother and her partner, get him fired from his minimum-wage job at McDonald’s, and nearly land him in jail when he does something incredibly inappropriate with a girl he’s just met.

Main Stage West company principal Elizabeth Craven perfectly captures life in small-town Vermont…

Domestic disruption grows exponentially with the appearance of photographer Frank (Zachary Tendick), a surprise guest in their home for the week. Phyllis can’t stand him nor what he does as an artist—the “male gaze” being the equivalent of an assault, in her view—nor can she understand why women flock to him to be immortalized in photos. She has rigid ideas about how women should present themselves. Joyce, on the other hand, finds him charming, likes his art, and welcomes him as a mentor to Jared.

Pinkham, Revelos, Prebilich, and Tendick at work for MSW.

The four characters form a tight pulsating web that in just under two hours examines self-concept, identity, commitment, family, and personal and artistic freedom. Playwright Baker—known for skewering Vermont’s politically correct culture—treats all of this with a fine blend of disdain, humor, and sympathy.

Prebilich and Revelos at work in “Body Awareness”

Directors John Shillington and Janine Sternlieb get marvelous performances from all four performers. Revelos and Prebilich are exceptional in exploring the breadth of their characters’ emotional lives, while Pinkham does a wonderful job in a role that more-or-less repeats one he did in last year’s “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime.” Tendick, in his first appearance on stage, anchors the whole affair with a surprising amount of gravitas.

With her set design and costumes, Main Stage West company principal Elizabeth Craven perfectly captures life in small-town Vermont. She also happens to have directed the astounding “Eureka Day,” running concurrently with “Body Awareness.”

The two shows’ related themes make them an ideal pair for back-to-back viewing. If there were such a thing as a perfectly-matched theatrical double feature they’d be it. Both provide plenty of laughs and plenty to ponder once the laughter fades.

 

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.

 

 

ProductionBody Awareness
Written byAnnie Baker
Directed byJohn Shillington and Janine Sternlieb
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Sept. 22nd
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$0 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Big Silly Fun in Cinnabar’s “Little Shop of Horrors” – by Barry Willis

Photo by Vero Kherian.

Roger Corman’s 1960 low-budget comedy/horror flick “The Little Shop of Horrors” is a classic of the genre. In the ‘60s and ‘70s it was a staple of late-night TV, inspiring an adaptation as a stage musical by Howard Ashman, with music by Alan Menken.

It’s been in continual production somewhere since it debuted in 1982, for good reasons. The story is cheesy, the characters are as broadly drawn as possible, and the music is absolutely infectious—think “Rocky Horror Show” meets “Grease.” Cinnabar’s current production of “Little Shop” is a tremendously high-energy treatment of this All-American classic, directed by Nathan Cummings and choreographed by Bridget Codoni, running through September 22.

The little shop is Mushnik’s Skid Row Florists, a failing retail business in a decrepit part of the city. Proprietor Mr. Mushnik (played with palpable fatigue and despair by Michael Van Why) prays for a miracle to keep his doors open. His hoped-for miracle appears when needed most— in the form of a carnivorous plant developed by Mushnik’s nerdy assistant Seymour Krelborn (Equity actor Michael McGurk).

Since its intro in 1982, American audiences can’t get enough schlocky story telling entertainment…

The presence of the plant in the shop generates astounding public interest for reasons that no one questions. Seymour names the plant “Audrey II” in honor of his co-worker Audrey (Sidney Raey-Gonzales), a sweetly reticent girl in an abusive relationship with a sadistic dentist, Dr. Orin Scrivello (Keith Baker, superb in multiple roles).

 

Seymour discovers by accident that the plant thrives on human flesh and blood — and that it speaks, demanding to be fed. Each feeding causes huge spurts in the plant’s aggressiveness and size—it goes from a “strange and interesting” thing in a small pot in the shop’s window to an enormous all-consuming monster that can devour a human in one gulp.

Mushnik’s business enjoys phenomenal growth in direct proportion to the plant’s, from selling a handful of posies each day to supplying all the flowers for the Rose Bowl Parade. Seymour undergoes a similar transition, from perpetually unnoticed back-room nobody to pop star, winning Audrey in the process. Her botanical namesake has solved multiple problems, but as in all monster lore — indeed, as in much of human life — the law of unintended consequences kicks in. Audrey II (voiced by Michelle Pagano, puppetry by Zane Walters — both excellent) becomes a massive problem. Solving it becomes Seymour’s new challenge.

Micheal McGurk as Seymour. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

The show’s patently ridiculous dramatic arc is further exaggerated by plenty of upbeat pop music, beautifully sung by Raey-Gonzales, McGurk, Baker, and the “doo-wop girls”: Ronette, Crystal and Chiffon (Selena Elize Flores, Aja Gianola-Norris, and Olivia Newbold, respectively). The trio’s harmonies are marvelous; the three are equally entertaining whether dolled up as an early ’60s girl group or in grunge mode as street urchins, and they nail the choreography. “Somewhere That’s Green,” a sweet invocation of idealized 1950s’ suburban living, is delivered with shimmering conviction by Raey-Gonzales. It’s the emotional high point of the first act.

The Doo-Wop Girls and Dr Scrivello. Photo by Eric Chazankin.

Baker clearly relishes going over the top as the hyper-caffeinated, charming-but-evil Dr. Scrivello. The ultra-kinetic McGurk is absolutely in his element as Seymour. Raey-Gonzales is commanding as Audrey, with a Brooklyn accent that never falters, even when she’s singing.

Peter Q. Parish has conjured a facile set serving as florist shop and city street, needing only a few brief changes from scene to scene. Their brevity helps propel this quick-moving musical—less than two hours including a fifteen-minute intermission. Hilarious and enthralling from beginning to end, this “Little Shop of Horrors” is an entertainment bargain certain to sell out fast. It’s simply big silly fun, fabulously well done.

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.

 

 

ProductionLittle Shop of Horrors
Written byWritten by Howard Ashman, from the screenplay by Charles Griffith
Directed byDirected by Nathan Cummings.

Assisted by Cecelia Hamilton.
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough Sept. 22nd
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$30 – $45
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 REVIEW PICK! “Cabaret” a Bawdy Cautionary Tale at SF Playhouse – by Barry Willis

The Kit Kat dancers at SF Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Every summer, San Francisco Playhouse revives a classic musical and runs it all season long. It’s a brilliant marketing ploy leveraging Union Square tourist traffic, one that gives company principals a breather to prepare for an intense fall/winter schedule. The company’s current offering is a splendid take on Kander and Ebbs’s “Cabaret,” through September 14.

It’s one of several iterations of “Cabaret” to pop up recently in the Bay Area, thanks to the Trump presidency and its supporters. SFP’s bawdy effort is both wonderfully entertaining and horrifically startling—a cautionary tale about the rise of pure evil among seemingly nice friendly people, such as Ernst Ludwig (Will Springhorn, Jr.), the charming German businessman who befriends American novelist Cliff Bradshaw (Atticus Shaindlin) on a train ride into Berlin.

Cate Heyman as Sally Bowles works SF Playhouse. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Ludwig introduces Bradshaw to Fraulein Schneider (Jennie Brick), proprietress of a rooming house where he soon takes up residence, and to the Kit Kat Klub, the cabaret of the show’s title. There he meets many denizens of Berlin’s cultural underworld, including the fetching Sally Bowles (Cate Hayman), a flighty British singer with whom he’s soon head over heels and sharing a room, both to his regret.

…if you haven’t seen it, make it a priority. If you have, it’s worth revisiting.

Many of the songs in this show made it into the pop repertoire, thanks to the commercial success of the 1972 movie: “Wilkommen,” “Don’t Tell Mama,” “Maybe This Time,” “Cabaret,” “Money,” and “Married,” a lovely duet performed by Fraulein Schneider and Herr Schultz (Louis Parnell), the fruit seller to whom Schneider gets engaged, both of them in late middle age. It’s a lilting note of hope in a show that’s ultimately and intentionally a very bitter pill buried in a thick coating of sugar. Herr Schultz is in deep denial about the rising tide of anti-Semitism, believing that as a native-born German Jew he will be considered a German first. Schneider knows better, and so does Bradshaw.

Jennie Brick and Louis Parnell as Schneider and Schultz. Photo by Jessica Palopoli

But the sugar is sweet and seductive. The Kit Kat Klub’s Master of Ceremonies is convincingly portrayed by John Paul Gonzalez, whose high-energy genderbending is the motive force behind most of the show’s many song-and-dance numbers (choreography by Nicole Helfer), performed by a tremendous ensemble, with music from an ace band under the direction of Dave Dobrusky.

Susi Damilano’s dynamic stage direction is first-rate, as is Jacquelyn Scott’s set design, but what sets this “Cabaret” apart from other very good productions is Cate Hayman as Sally Bowles. A theater student at Carnegie Mellon University (as is Atticus Shaindlin), Heyman brings a depth to her character that other performers have missed. Sally Bowles is usually portrayed as an annoying self-centered airhead, and Heyman encompasses that, but her Sally has an implied backstory that makes her much more substantial than most. Heyman is the best Sally Bowles this reviewer has ever seen.

Also superb is Abby Haug as Fraulien Kost, a resident at Fraulien Schneider’s who earns her living entertaining sailors by the hour. Haug and Heyman will prove justification for many ticket buyers. “Cabaret” at SF Playhouse runs a couple more weeks—if you haven’t seen it, make it a priority. If you have, it’s worth revisiting.

 

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.

 

 

ProductionCabaret
Written byWritten by Joe Masteroff

Music by John Kander and Fred Eb
Directed bySusi Damilano
Producing CompanySF Playhouse
Production DatesThru Sept. 14th
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
Overall4.5/5
Performance4/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! Stacy Ross Shines in “Year of Magical Thinking” – by Barry Willis

Stacy Ross at work at the Aurora Theatre. Photo courtesy Aurora Theatre Co

Anyone who’s read Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking” might wonder how anyone could turn the book into a play. The answer is that only the author could do it, or at least, do it right. Prolific essayist, novelist, and screenwriter, Didion accomplishes the seemingly impossible in her one-woman/one-act play at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company, through July 28.

On a stage and backdrop of what appear to be huge Travertine slabs (set by Kent Dorsey) Stacy Ross shines as she relates Didion’s horrific, heartbreaking tale of suddenly losing her husband and collaborator, writer John Gregory Dunne, while their adopted daughter was in a coma. Among the very best actors in the Bay Area, Ross fully inhabits the story without attempting to be Didion—an astute decision by her and director Nancy Carlin. Ross and Didion are as physically unlike as possible.

…brilliantly interwoven with sweet reminiscences of family life…

No one is ever prepared for a sudden loss, of course, and the shock of it is the running theme throughout the production’s ninety well-paced minutes. Ross opens with a recitation lifted almost verbatim from the book’s first chapter—about how Dunne collapsed as the author was preparing dinner, the arrival of paramedics, a panicky trip to the emergency room, and the inevitable aftermath. Even in shock and overwhelmed by sorrow, Didion can’t help injecting self-deprecating humor and ironic observation—she stands in line with insurance card in hand, because it seems the proper thing to do, and in the ER, she’s introduced to her husband’s momentary physician, whom she can’t resist describing as “a pre-teen in a white lab coat.”

The social circumstances of death get full vetting, brilliantly interwoven with sweet reminiscences of family life in Malibu and New York. But it’s the interior monolog that’s most compelling—an examination of pretending to go about the daily business of life while knowingly indulging in self-deception and compulsive rituals in the secret hope that all that’s happened can somehow be altered—the “magical thinking” of the title.

This solo production is an understated masterful performance that seamlessly blends lecture, confession, and conversation. In her book and play, Didion eloquently managed to encompass all of psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous stages of dying—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—stages that apply not only to the terminally ill but to their survivors. Stacy Ross is brilliant in conveying a narrative whose subject will inevitably touch all of 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.

 

 

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!

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Drumming With Anubis” Wildly Entertaining at Left Edge Theatre – by Barry Willis

Mark Bradbury (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

In the galaxy of theater, the convergence of brilliant concept and brilliant execution occurs all too rarely. When it does, it’s a thing of beauty and wonder and a cause for celebration, like a solar eclipse or a blue moon.

At Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through June 30, David Templeton’s “Drumming With Anubis” is all this and more. A poignant, hilarious exercise in magical realism, it finds a group of middle-aged geeks camped out on the edge of the desert, there for a weekend of male empowerment, macho drumming, personal confessions, and recollections about the glory days of head-banging heavy metal rock. Founded by a recently departed drummer named Joshua Tree, the Neo-Heathen Male Bonding and Drumming Society has gathered in part to lay Josh’s ashes to rest, and to welcome a new member to its fold—a mysterious and reticent fellow they call simply “New Bitch” (Mark Bradbury).

The similarity to the new recruit’s nickname and the name of the Eqyptian god of death and mummification is no coincidence, of course, and the connection becomes increasingly clear as the story moves on—something it does with panache and superb pacing under the direction of David L. Yen, who somehow managed to balance rehearsals and performances of the excellent “Faceless” at 6th Street Playhouse with rehearsals of “Drumming.”

. . . the most near-perfect production you’re likely to see this summer.”

Pallaziol, Sholley, Martinez, and Schloemp (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

Yen may have gone without sleep for weeks while doing this, but the results are exemplary—a very funny production delicately seasoned with moments of profound personal truth. Chris Schloemp stars as the group’s leader, a kilt-wearing electrical contractor named “Chick” who as a not-quite-successful drummer has lived a large part of his life in Josh’s shadow. Anthony Martinez is his sidekick “Bull,” a gruff-voiced barbeque entrepreneur given to dressing like a Harley rider, but a man with deep insecurities about his masculinity. Then there’s “Stingray” (Richard Pallaziol), a twice-divorced alcoholic struggling to hang onto his third wife and his job as a manager of multiple sporting goods stores. Keeper of the group’s rules is Neil (Equity actor Nick Sholley), a “professor of pop culture” with failing knees, who has never recovered from the loss of his lover Alex. Altogether, they are an incredibly talented and superbly-balanced group of performers.

Miller and Martinez (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

The campers poke fun at their own and each other’s foibles, punctuating each heartfelt revelation or silly joke (revealing any would be unfair to playwright and patrons) with drum riffs and chants of “Balls deep!” while mourning the loss of their founder. Into their midst comes Nicky Tree (the feisty Ivy Rose Miller), Josh’s young widow, seeking not only her husband’s pilfered ashes but some substantial psychological restitution from the ragtag assemblage. How she gets it and what they get in return—both as individuals and as a group—is the driving force of the play’s second act, amplified by a continually-more-assertive Anubis. It’s a powerhouse combination of tremendous writing, acting, and direction, all of it on a delightfully plausible set by Argo Thompson, with gorgeous background projections by Schloemp.

Prolific journalist, critic, playwright, and North Bay national treasure, Templeton with this project has ventured out of the autobiographical mode that characterizes most of his prior work. It’s a fantastically successful effort carried out by a troupe of artists who truly understand and embrace his vision. You’ll howl with laughter but moments later may find yourself wiping tears away—an emotional rollercoaster that’s both thrilling ride and rock-solid reward. “Drumming With Anubis” may be the most near-perfect production you’re likely to see this summer.

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.

 

 

ProductionDrumming With Anubis
Written byDavid Templeton
Directed byDavid L. Yen
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough June 30th
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
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: “Cabaret” a Solid Bet at Napa’s Lucky Penny – by Barry Willis

 

Ashley Garlick (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

The current American political climate has had some predictable consequences. Among them: a spate of theatrical revivals of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret,” a musical now in its 53rd year. The latest North Bay version runs at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions through June 16th.

The 1972 movie firmly established the show in pop culture—many people know the songs without understanding that the show itself isn’t a lightweight romp through the decadent underworld of Weimar Republic Berlin. The story’s time frame isn’t specific, but encompasses the rise of the Nazi party and increasingly virulent anti-Semitism. We often forget that the Nazi party was democratically elected, having gained popularity slowly but persistently throughout the late 1920s. By 1933 it was the most powerful political party in Germany. The parallels with Trump’s America are all too clear.

Directed by Ken Sonkin, this “Cabaret” is presented in shades of gray—except for the Nazi armbands, costumes by Rebecca Valentino are all black/white/gray. Lighting designer April George bathes the stage in flat yellowish light that gives the whole affair a grainy film-noir look. It’s an evocative effect but one that left this reviewer longing for more dramatic lighting, something that comes only late in the final act.

The core plot revolves around an itinerant American novelist, Cliff Bradshaw (a youngish Ryan Hook) befriended by German businessman Ernst Ludwig (F. James Raasch) on a train ride into Berlin. Ludwig knows the city intimately, and introduces Bradshaw to the Kit Kat Klub (the cabaret of the show’s title) and to Fraulein Schneider (Karen Pinomaki), proprietor of a rooming house where he takes up residence. At the club he meets a self-centered British songbird named Sally Bowles (a spirited Ashley Garlick). The two of them are soon deeply if contentiously involved.

Tim Setzer and Karen Pinomaki (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

A secondary love story involves Fraulein Schneider and fruit seller Herr Schultz (Tim Setzer), both of them in late middle age and deeply in love. The relationship between Bradshaw and Bowles is interestingly rocky and ultimately sort of pointless, but it’s the fate of Schneider and Schultz that hooks the audience. One of only three characters in the play who comprehend the inevitability of the approaching storm—the other two are Bradshaw and Ludwig—Schneider backs out of a late-in-life wedding, hoping to survive by “flying under the radar,” as we might say today. As stage director Michael Ross pointed out on opening night, Schneider and Shultz are the pair you’re rooting for. Setzer and Pinomaki are at the height of their considerable theatrical powers in conveying the sweetness and hopelessness of their characters’ relationship. The two are absolutely wonderful in this production.

The parallels with Trump’s America are all too clear.”

Denial of the obvious is a strong theme. As the tale progresses, the Nazi movement rises from potential menace to full tsunami, symbolized by a moment when the charming Herr Ludwig comes out of the political closet sporting a Nazi armband. Raasch is superb as the villainous but totally likeable true believer. Fraulein Schneider vows that maintaining a low profile will insure her survival; while Bradshaw tries desperately to get Bowles to leave Berlin with him—before it’s too late. Too hooked on minor league stardom to consider going elsewhere, she stays behind when he escapes to Paris. Herr Schultz is similarly clueless, believing that as a native-born German Jew he will be considered a German first. Setzer is magnificent in his portrayal of a kind-hearted man blinded by delusional hope.

Kirstin Pieschke and Brian Watson (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

The show-within-a-show is the burlesque in the Kit Kat Klub, stunningly produced and performed by its Emcee (Brian Watson, the cast’s only Equity actor). Watson is spectacular throughout, as is the live music from a strong four-piece band led by Craig Burdette. Barry Martin is excellent in several minor roles—as Max, the club’s owner; as an inspector on the Berlin-Paris train; and as a Nazi officer. Andrea Dennison-Laufer is very good as Fraulein Kost, a resident of Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house, who makes her living entertaining sailors by the hour. Staci Ariaga’s choreography is entertaining without being too difficult for the assorted Kit Kat girls, and boys.

Opening night was marred by too much stage smoke and sound effects that overwhelmed dialog—problems that we were assured would be corrected immediately. Fifty-some years after its debut, not much about this show will seem shocking other than its message. Unique to this production is a final dismissal to Nazi madness: the cast tossing their swastika-emblazoned armbands on the floor like so much trash. It’s a great directorial decision, and a really satisfying gesture—one performed with silent conviction that no words could emulate.

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.

 

 

ProductionCabaret
Written byMusic by John Kander and Fred Ebb; Book by Joe Masteroff
Directed byKen Sonkin; Music Directed by Craig Burdette
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough June 16th
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
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

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! 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! 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 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! 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 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! August Wilson Brought to Life in “How I Learned What I Learned” – by Barry Willis

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and national treasure August Wilson was taken from us too soon, in 2005 at 60 years of age. A self-taught high school dropout who authored dozens of plays—among them, “Fences,” “Gem of the Ocean,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Jitney,” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”—the prolific Wilson accumulated many honors and awards. What he might have achieved had he lived longer is the stuff of speculation, but what he accomplished is astounding, the real meaning of “a lasting legacy.”

‘How I Learned What I Learned’ is a couple of the most rewarding hours you’re likely to have in a theater this year…

Through February 3, Marin Theatre Company is presenting Wilson’s autobiographical one-man play “How I Learned What I Learned” starring veteran actor Steven Anthony Jones, directed with great sensitivity by Margo Hall.

Steven Anthony Jones as August Wilson.

Anchored in Wilson’s upbringing in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the performance is a seamless blend of reminiscence, historical fact, observation, and sermon, much of it a mix of personal anecdotes that range from exceedingly tender—a grade-school epiphany when he kisses the girl of his dreams—to absolutely horrific. He was a close-up witness of a murder provoked by an insult.

Jones’s monologue covers an astounding amount of time and material—from Wilson’s childhood in Pittsburgh to his adult years in St. Paul and Seattle—all of it conveyed with insightful wit and the intimate, avuncular wisdom of a wily old preacher.

Steven Anthony Jones working at MTC.

A cooperative production with the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre and the Ubuntu Theater Project—the show moves sequentially to those two venues when it leaves MTC—“How I Learned What I Learned” is a couple of the most rewarding hours you’re likely to have in a theater this year.

 

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“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! “Moon Over Buffalo” Shines at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

An erratic sword-swinging scene that opens “Moon Over Buffalo” only hints at the wildness to come in Ken Ludwig’s “Moon Over Buffalo,” at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa through February 3.

A master of the American door-slamming farce, Ludwig’s output includes theater-world classics such as “Crazy for You” and “Lend Me a Tenor.” Filling out the triumvirate is “Moon Over Buffalo,” about an acting family doing repertory performances of “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Noel Coward’s “Private Lives” in Buffalo, NY in 1953.

Patriarch George Hay (Dodds Delzell) is a theater careerist who’s very dismissive of the film industry, despite a phone call from legendary director Frank Capra, saying he’s considering George and his wife Charlotte (Madeleine Ashe) as replacements for Ronald Coleman and Greer Garson in a production of “Twilight of the Scarlet Pimpernel.” It’s possibly a dream come true for Charlotte, who longs for a life more glamorous than that of iterant actors.

‘Moon Over Buffalo’ has more romantic complexities than a Shakespearean comedy…

Helter-skelter antics by their associates, confusion about which play they are performing, and the lure of a career breakthrough, compounded by George’s appetite for prodigious amounts of alcohol make for some riotous comedy. George drinks until he can barely stand—in some instances, he can’t—and mixes and muddles his roles in the two very unlike shows while Charlotte and their daughter Rosalind (Chandler Parrott-Thomas) try to cover for him. Add to this a hearing-impaired grandmother (Shirley Nilsen Hall), a hyperactive TV weatherman (Erik Weiss), a lovesick attorney (Joe Winkler), a company manager desperately trying to keep the Hays on track (Robert Nelson), and a young actress impregnated by George (Victoria Saitz).

L-R: Dodds Delzell, Robert Nelson, Chandler Parrott-Thomas, Shirley Nilsen Hall, Madeleine Ashe in “Moon Over Buffalo”

All of this comes to a frothy head in the second act, on a substantial set by Jason Jamerson—it has to be with all the wrestling, drunken gymnastics, and door-slamming—under the guiding hand of director Carl Jordan.

Despite the sword-swinging, there’s a surfeit of exposition in the first act that makes the whole affair a bit slow to gain altitude, and some anachronisms in the dialog and props, but the second-act payoff is worth the wait. Delzell is perfectly cast as the out-of-control Hay—at one point he perfectly casts himself into the orchestra pit—and Parrott-Thomas is brilliant as the long-suffering daughter who does everything and more to save her family’s careers and the show they’re putting on.

“Moon Over Buffalo” has more romantic complexities than a Shakespearean comedy, and is riddled with theater-insider references (there are hints in the playbill). Astute audience members may recognize entire scenes that have been lifted into television sitcoms, movies, and other plays. The multiple second-chance ending is icing on a cake of simply great silly fun.

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? --------

 

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 **** “The Addams Family – A New Musical” Dazzles at Spreckels Performing Arts Center – by Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emma LeFever at work as Wednesday – Photo by Jeff Thomas

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

… The piece opens strongly …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dani Innocenti-Beem at work as Dolly.

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

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

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

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

The cast of “Hello Dolly” at work.

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

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

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

 

ProductionMy Fair Lady!
Written byBook by Alan Jay Lerner. Music and Lyrics by Lerner & Frederick Loewe.
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

 

**** 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! 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! Stunning, Perfect “Always, Patsy Cline” at Sonoma Arts Live – by Barry Willis

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

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

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

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

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

Danielle DeBow at work as Patsy Cline.

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

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

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

 

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

 

ProductionMy Fair Lady!
Written byBook by Alan Jay Lerner. Music and Lyrics by Lerner & Frederick Loewe.
Directed byMichael Ross
Producing CompanySonoma Arts Live
Production DatesThru July 28th
Production AddressRotary Stage: Andrews Hall, Sonoma Community Center
276 E. Napa Street, Sonoma
Websitewww.sonomaartslive.org
Telephone866-710-8942
Tickets$25 – $40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Soft Power’ is a wildly entertaining celebration…

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

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

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

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

Barry Willis

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

 

 

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 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!

 

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

“Stairway to Paradise” at Transcendence Theater Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Barry Willis

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

 

 

Transcendence Theatre Company presents

“Stairway to Paradise”

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

Jack London State Historic Park  Glen Ellen, CA

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

www.BestNightEver.org

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

 

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

“A Walk on the Moon” at ACT

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

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

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

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

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

Pearl and Walker – Katie Brayben and Zak Resnick at ACT

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

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

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

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

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer: Barry Willis

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

Tickets: $15 – $110

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

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

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

Straight White Men at Marin Theater Company

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

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

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

Cast of “Straight White Men” at MTC

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

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

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

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

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

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer: Barry Willis

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

 

 

 

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

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

Marin Theatre Company  397 Miller Avenue Mill Valley, CA  94941

Tickets: $22 – $60

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

Rating: Two out of Five Stars

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

“Hands on a Hardbody” at Lucky Penny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Hands on a Hardbody”

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

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

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

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

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

“Five Tellers Dancing in the Rain” at NTC

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

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

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

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

Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com

 

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

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

Tickets: $15 – $27

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

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

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

 

Nate Currier as Hamlet photo by Scott London

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

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

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

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

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

Ophelia feels the pain – photo by Jay Yamada

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

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

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

 

“Hamlet” by Marin Shakespeare Company

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

Forest Meadows Amphitheatre at Dominican University, San Rafael, CA

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

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

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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! 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! 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! SF Playhouse’s Haunting “The Effect” – by Barry Willis

In “The Effect,”  at San Francisco Playhouse through April 28, a clinical drug trial goes off the rails when two test subjects fall in love, and two supervising psychiatrists revisit an old affair.

The story plays out over a few weeks in a lab belonging to the fictional Rauschen pharmaceutical company. Two young trial volunteers, Connie Hall and Tristan Frey (Ayelet Firstenberg and Joe Estlack, respectively) have signed up to test an experimental antidepressant, ostensibly because they need the money, although that is never made explicit.

Lead researcher Dr. Toby Sealey (Robert Parsons) has great hopes for the potential of this new drug to raise levels of dopamine, a substance naturally present in the brain, but depleted in depressed people. His one-time lover Dr. Lorna James (Susi Damilano) is directly in charge of administering incrementally increasing doses to her subjects and monitoring their behavior. She tries vainly to intervene when Connie and Tristan get involved with each other, because love’s pleasure also raises dopamine levels, potentially masking the effect of the drug. She also tries vainly to suppress lingering feelings for Dr. Sealey, a man she dismisses as “the most notorious fuck-around on the conference circuit.”

Playwright Lucy Prebble’s fascinating script examines the nature of love and mental illness, calls into question scientific objectivity, and makes a deserving target of pharmaceuticals with marginal benefits and many deadly side effects. Dr. James does likewise – she remarks to Dr. Sealey that “the history of medicine is the history of placebos” and later predicts that “one day we will look back on all this chemical-imbalance stuff like the four humors.” Their relationship does not blossom anew. It’s implied that Dr. Sealey may enjoy a big payout if the trial’s results are positive.

Set designer Nina Ball is at her best here, evoking the vaguely pleasant but impersonal nature of corporate environments, with superb help from projections designer Theodore J.H. Hulsker, whose video graphics are chillingly effective.

Director Bill English gets a powerful performance from his cast of four. The show’s dark trajectory is interrupted here and there by moments of near-comedy, but the light at the end of its tunnel doesn’t shine on Dr. James. “The Effect” is a well-done theatrical rarity that entertains, informs, and provokes in equal measure.

 

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

 

“The Effect” by Lucy Prebble

Through April 28

San Francisco Playhouse

450 Post Street, San Francisco

Tickets: $25 – $100

Info: www.sfplayhouse.org

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“The Wolves” by Sarah Delappe

Through April 15, 2018

Marin Theatre Company

397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley, CA 94941

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

“By the Water” Directed by Carl Jordan

Spreckels Performing Arts Center, Studio Theatre

5409 Snyder Lane, Rohnert Park, CA

Tickets: $28

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

Rating: Five Stars — Out of Five Stars

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

“Blackbird” by David Harrower

Through April 7th

Main Stage West  104 North Main Street  Sebastopol, CA 95472

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

Contact@mainstagewest.com

Rating: Three-and-a-half Stars

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child”

Through February 25, 2018

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

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

 

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced”

Through February 18, 2018

Left Edge Theatre, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road Santa Rosa CA 95403

www.leftedgetheatre.com

707-546-3600

Rating: Five out of five stars. 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

Rating: Three out of Five Stars

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

 

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

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

 

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