ASR Theater ~~ Undead Cat Provokes Hilarity in MSW’s “Wink”

By Sue Morgan

Despite having read a synopsis of Jen Silverman’s “Wink” before attending the opening night performance at Main Stage West in Sebastopol, I was utterly unprepared for the existential poignancy and laugh-out-loud dark absurdist farce that awaited me.

The titular character, a cat named Wink, has gone missing. Wink’s human, Sophie (masterfully played by Ilana Niernberger, among the North Bay’s most versatile actors) is distraught but can’t prompt any concern from husband Gregor (John Browning). He’s long resented the affection Sophie expressed toward the animal, while maintaining a physical and emotional distance between herself and Gregor.

…a truly enjoyable evening’s diversion…

The simple set by David Lear—predominately a loveseat and wingback chair—alternates as a therapist’s office and the protagonists’ living room. Early in the story, Sofie destroys the room in a moment of grief, rage and roiling impotence. The mess remains throughout ensuing scenes, allowing the audience to perceive an appropriate façade and inviting us into the magical realism pervading this astonishingly original, brilliantly executed story.

Sam Coughlin may well have been a cat in a previous life, proved by his seamless embodiment of Wink. During his first appearance, the undead feline, driven by hunger, has risen from the grave. Coughlin, in flesh-toned briefs, moves about the set with grace, unbridled confidence and nearly-naked sexuality. He leaps effortlessly from floor to sofa back to window, sometimes draping himself languorously over furniture or an open lap, or rubbing seductively against a piece of furniture or the nearest human body part.

Michael Fontaine (L) as therapist Dr. Franz. Ilana Niernberger (R).

John Browning is utterly convincing as repressed, gaslighting husband and probable cat killer Gregor. While posturing as dismissive and unconcerned, Browning’s Gregor briefly allows us to glimpse an underlying thoughtfulness and vulnerability that allow us a few moments of compassion for his otherwise reprehensible character. The best villains always have redeeming qualities. The ensemble is rounded out by an adroit Michael Fontaine as therapist Dr. Franz, who sees both Sophie and Gregor professionally, but individually, reminding them that depression and dissatisfaction are synonymous with the human condition and that the proper course of action is to accept and steadfastly maintain both conditions.

Playwright Jen Silverman’s use of sophisticated language adds to the humor as Sophie attempts to explain the wrecked living room to Gregor. She invents a terrorist named Roland who, she says, came into their home, tore it up and pushed her menacingly (and, judging by her reenactment of the imaginary scene, quite seductively) against a wall. When Gregor asks how Sophie knows the assailant’s name and occupation, she explains that he told her “In a letter” which he communicated via “semaphore” from the roof of a nearby home.

John Browning (L) as Gregor.

Absurdities pile one on the other as the play progresses. Bent on revenge against Gregor, Wink moves in with Dr. Franz. The two begin sharing nightcaps and flirtations. While at first frightened and somewhat repelled by Wink, Dr. Franz is soon smitten with the cat and begins to let go of his dictum that life is nothing but responsibility and drudgery.

In a playfully sexual scene, Wink encourages Franz to loosen up by showing him how to walk and stand like a cat, placing his paws on Franz’ hips, reminding him that he has hips and shoulders. In one of the most poignant scenes, Wink announces that he’s leaving because he refuses to allow himself to be “skinned twice.” Franz implores Wink to tell him, before he leaves, if he has any feelings at all for him. Wink responds by rubbing himself lovingly against Franz, clearly moved by the gesture.

Ilana Niernberger at work in “Wink” at MSW.

 

As Dr. Franz begins to open up, Gregor is being swept down a maelstrom of rage and self-directed violence while, simultaneously, Sophie sheds her own persona, trading khakis and sneakers for black leather and combat boots, as she transforms herself into Roland in his over-the-top destructiveness and freedom from the constraints of civilized society. All three characters have taken unpredictable vectors thanks to Wink, who’s still out there somewhere, perhaps wreaking vengeance on another cat-hating egotist.

We might assume that one cat couldn’t have the power to upend the lives of three people, but that misgiving is put to rest in this 75-minute one-act directed by James Pelican. “Wink” sails along without a hitch toward a marvelously ambiguous conclusion—a truly enjoyable evening’s diversion.

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Contributing Writer Sue Morgan is a literature-and-theater enthusiast in Sonoma County’s Russian River region.

Contact: sstrongmorgan@gmail.com

 

ProductionWink
Written byJen Silverman
Directed byJames Pelican
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThru June 25th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20– $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!-----

 

 

 

 

ASR Theater ~~ Darkness Rules in “One Flea Spare” at Main Stage West | Your Reporters, Nicole Singley and Barry Willis

Novelist Kurt Vonnegut sometimes joked about his “vector analysis” approach to understanding stories, in particular the trajectories of primary characters.

For example, Cinderella’s personal vector moves like a rollercoaster through peaks of hope and valleys of despair, ultimately ending on a high note. Her arrow repeatedly goes across the “zero axis” between darkness and light. Many other stories take place entirely in the dark, without ever entering the light. Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” is one, in which a young man named Gregor Samsa, despised and reviled by his entire family, wakes up one morning to discover that he’s been transformed into a giant cockroach.  The murderous rampage that is Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” similarly takes place entirely in the dark. There’s nothing uplifting in the script, and no possibility of a happy outcome. The fact that the whole affair is miserably depressing hasn’t hampered the play’s enduring popularity. Nor has it impaired “Sweeney Todd,” a show that’s performed with inexplicable regularity.

 “One Flea Spare” is a deep probe into the dark side of human existence….

Naomi Wallace’s “One Flea Spare” is in this tradition.  A depiction of four people forced to quarantine in an upscale London home during the Bubonic Plague of the 17th century, it begins morosely and gets darker from there. Director David Lear and his excellent group of performers at Sebastopol’s Main Stage West don’t try to gussy up Wallace’s dim view of humanity but bore into the historical and emotional darkness like coal miners eager for work. Allusions to the COVID pandemic weren’t intended by the playwright, but are more than appropriate today.

The setup is simple: people are dying in droves and the city has commissioned some enforcers to keep those still symptom-free indoors at home until officials deem it safe for them to come out. Kevin Bordi plays one such enforcer, a good-natured oaf called Kabe, who visits the Snelgrave home to nail closed the shutters so that no one can escape.

Matthew Cadigan, left, rehearses with director David Lear for “One Flea Spare” at Main Stage West. (Photo by Main Stage West)

He converses amicably with the homeowners—superbly played by North Bay theater veterans John Craven and Elly Lichenstein—who are harboring two fugitives, a sailor named Bunce (Matthew Cadigan) and a young servant woman named Morse (Miranda Jean Williams), who have taken unapproved refuge in the Snelgrave home.

The four spend the next 28 days together in the dank house (set design also by Lear) getting to know more than they ever wanted to learn about each other, confessing things that might best be kept unspoken, and violating all kinds of social norms. Familiarity leads to contempt, as the old adage has it, and contempt leads to malicious violence, details of which won’t be shared here.

“One Flea Spare” is a deep probe into the dark side of human existence, offset somewhat by moments when the characters connect and seem to share some humanity with one another, usually in the context of revealing past hurts and painful secrets, such as Mrs. Snelgrave’s sad story about a fire that killed her horses and left her scarred and in a lonely marriage. Morse and Bunce have their own unhappy tales, but there’s palpable erotic tension and longing between Bunce and Mrs. Snelgrave.

Such scenes add dimension to the overwhelming darkness. Some viewers may feel compassion for all but the house’s master, and may enjoy a strange sense of delight when the others band together to strip him of his power.

It’s a beautiful bit of symbolism. All three had suffered greatly under men such as Snelgrave—the sailor’s forced military service destroyed his personal life, the servant girl literally lived under the control of her masters, and the wealthy lady of the house spent her life trapped in a dead and hostile marriage. The bizarre quarantine situation throws these three unlikely people together and enables them to challenge the power structure that has ruled their lives. Their joy, of course, is terribly short lived.

“One Flea Spare” is not a fairytale, but there is a bit of light peeking through the darkness. The production doesn’t feel like a month in quarantine, but theatrical magic does its work to convey an overriding sense of fear and claustrophobia, stretched out long enough to give the audience a taste of house arrest and an appreciation for the freedom of simply walking outside into the open air.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal 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

 

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.

 

ProductionOne Flea Spare
Written byNaomi Wallace
Directed byDavid Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThru April 30th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20– $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!-----

 

An ASR Pick. | Exquisite Theater: MSW’s “The Glass Menagerie” | Your Reporter: Barry Willis

Main Stage West has rebounded from the confounding “Late, A Cowboy Song” with an exceptional production of the Tennessee Williams classic “The Glass Menagerie.” Expertly directed by Elizabeth Craven, it may be the only production ever done featuring real-life mother-and-daughter as their fictional counterparts.

Williams’ “memory play” takes place in St. Louis, in the late 1930s. A three-member family struggles to survive in the wake of a long-ago departure by an unnamed father and husband, whose portrait and influence loom over everything in the household.

Sheri Lee Miller, Theatre Manager at Spreckels Performing Arts Center, stars as family matriarch Amanda Wingfield, a manipulative and delusional faded Southern belle who smothers her adult children with a seemingly endless recital of recollections and demands. Miller’s daughter Ivy Rose Miller, MSW’s Managing Artistic Director, is understatedly amazing as Amanda’s weepy wallflower daughter Laura. MSW’s Producing Artistic Director Keith Baker turns in a solid performance as Tom Wingfield, Laura’s brother, a would-be poet and adventurer who also serves as the show’s narrator. Newcomer (for this reviewer, at least) Damion Lee Matthews does a more-than-convincing job as Jim, Tom’s associate from the shoe warehouse where they both work.

MSW’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” is among the finest this reviewer has ever seen…

The four-member cast is beautifully balanced. MSW’s compact stage is the perfect venue for the Wingfield family’s shabby St. Louis apartment—set design by David Lear and Elizabeth Craven. Missy Weaver’s moody lighting contributes to the Wingfields’ unhappy ambience, and carefully-curated selections of ‘30s-era music help put the story in its proper historical perspective—sound designer not credited in the playbill.

Glass Menagerie – Keith Baker and Damion Lee Matthews

This “Menagerie” is a stunning example of superb ensemble work that sails along at just the right pace, neither too briskly nor too slowly. Matthews exhibits palpable sensitivity as his Jim gets to know Laura, and Ivy Rose plumbs the depths of Laura’s rudderless existence. Baker confidently anchors the whole production, serving as a morose counterbalance to Sheri Lee Miller’s flamboyant and hysterical Amanda.

MSW’s production of “The Glass Menagerie” is among the finest this reviewer has ever seen—an exquisite piece of theatrical art that should be on every theatergoer’s must-see list.

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Aisle Seat Review NorCal 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 Glass Menagerie
Written byTennessee Williams
Directed byElizabeth Craven
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough March 5th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20 – $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

 

 

An ASR Theater Review: “Late” a Baffling Production at Main Stage West — by Barry Willis

 

Main Stage West has an enviable record of expertly-selected and beautifully-performed productions. In recent memory are astounding, gorgeously-rendered shows such as “The House of Yes,” “Lungs,” “Blackbird,” “After Miss Julie,” and “Heathen Valley,” all of them given glowing reviews here.

Against this impressive background, there’s little to explain the oddity that is “Late, A Cowboy Song,” in the cozy theater on Sebastopol’s Main Street through December 18. Reputedly one of playwright Sarah Ruhl’s early efforts, “Late” features three North Bay talents, under the direction of Missy Weaver, trying to make something significant from what’s not much more than a collection of semi-related sketches from Ruhl’s notebook.

…there’s nothing funny about it, other than the fact that an MSW play-reading committee decided it was worth developing.

A description lifted from the MSW site: Mary, always late and always married, meets a lady cowboy outside the city limits of Pittsburgh who teaches her how to ride a horse. Mary’s husband, Crick, buys a painting with the last of their savings. Mary and Crick have a baby, but they can’t decide on the baby’s name, or the baby’s gender. A story of one woman’s education and her search to find true love outside the box.

More: Crick (Jeff Coté) is an unemployed stay-at-home husband who cooks for Mary (Sharia Pierce)—even though she seldom comes home for dinner on time—flirts and bickers with her, and finally caves into her demands that he get a job. Their relationship is pointless, their finances are thin, and their living conditions are rough. Mary finds solace with a friend named Red (Nancy Prebilich), a self-styled guitar-playing, horse-riding “lady cowboy.” Having a baby only compounds the problems in her marriage, and Mary ultimately rides off into the western Pennsylvania sunset with Red. The end.

I am not giving too much away by revealing this. Not a single problem In the Crick-and-Mary household gets solved and there’s not enough in Mary’s pleasant encounters with Red to justify abandoning her marriage, but that’s the tale as delivered. Somewhere I saw a promotional blurb hyping the show as “a comedy” but there’s nothing funny about it, other than the fact that an MSW play-reading committee decided it was worth developing. Mostly it’s a lot of bickering, confusion, and alienation punctuated by a few tender moments until it all comes to a merciful halt.

 

The dramatic arc of “Late” is shallow at best, and Mary has the only discernible character arc. Sarah Ruhl can be a tremendously engaging playwright who favors throwing in bits of magical realism—see for example, “How to Transcend a Happy Marriage,” that played recently to full houses at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre. “Late” attempts magical realism too—set designer David Lear’s horse being the best example.

Coté, Pierce, and Preblich try mightily with what they’ve been given, but saturation irony simply isn’t a strong enough foundation on which to build a play that will sustain an audience through ninety non-stop minutes. Ruhl has penned many compelling plays. Regrettably, “Late, A Cowboy Song” isn’t one of them.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition 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

 

ProductionOne Flea Spare
Written byNaomi Wallace
Directed byDavid Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThru April 30th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20– $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!-----

ASR Theater Review: “Topdog/Underdog” Uneven but Compelling at Main Stage West — by Barry Willis

Sibling rivalry and resentment take a horrific turn in Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” at Main Stage West in Sebastopol, through October 30.

Directed by North Bay theater veteran (and cookie magnate) Bronwen Shears, Keene Hudson and D’Artagnan Riviera star as brothers Lincoln and Booth, respectively, residing in a shabby room with a communal bathroom down the hall. A reformed street hustler, Lincoln has taken a job in a local arcade, acting the part of his namesake president in a game in which players take potshots at him. Booth is doing his best to master the art of Three Card Monte so that he might improve his personal cash flow by preying on gullible “marks”—a pursuit Lincoln has already renounced, to the point where he’s reluctant to coach Booth on the finer points of the game.

…The potential to take this production from good to great is certainly there…

The two brothers vacillate between reminiscing about their mostly dysfunctional childhoods and arguing with each other. The more animated and aggressive of the two, Lincoln is frequently unkind to Booth, who has long chafed in his older brother’s shadow. There’s also palpable love between the two, but much disagreement about their shared past as well as the future. Their interactions—all taking place in one room—are an emotional rollercoaster skillfully crafted by playwright, director and the two actors.

Keene Hudson at work in Topdog/Underdog.

Hudson and Riviera play off each other well—Hudson’s character the more dynamic of the two. Riviera plays Booth as brooding and introspective, without a hint of the malevolence that ultimately brings down the curtain. He has a solid grasp of his character and his character’s motivation, but stumbled with some lines late on opening weekend, a shortcoming certain to be corrected as the production moves into its second, third, and fourth weeks.

The potential to take this production from good to great is certainly there. Parks’ theme, of course, is one of the oldest, going back to ancient mythologies—the Biblical tale of Cain and Abel, for example. Other inspirations may include the viciously backstabbing sisters in Shakespeare’s “King Lear” or the contentious brothers Austin and Lee in Sam Shepard’s “True West.” There are certainly striking parallels between that play and this one. It’s not a jolly ride, but it’s one that will open your eyes and perhaps prompt discussion. “Topdog/Underdog” is a compelling examination of a permanently recurring and tragic human condition.

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ASR Nor Cal Edition 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

 

ProductionTopdog/Underdog
Written bySuzan-Lori Parks
Directed byBronwen Shears
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Oct 30th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20 – $32
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 — A Zoom with a View: Patty from HR Gives Corporate Training a Thumping – by Barry Willis

‘Patty from HR: Mo Patty Mo Problems,’ the sequel to writer/performer Michael Phillis’s “Patty from HR Would Like a Word” is coming to Oasis Jan. 30-Feb 1.

Corporate training sessions and their inevitable Power Point presentations are among the most dreaded rituals of modern life. Drag performer Michael Phillis must have endured dozens of them to come up with Patty from HR: A Zoom with a View, at Sebastopol’s Main Stage West through September 11.

Written, directed, and performed by Phillis, A Zoom with a View skewers the idiocy of technological culture—including, thank you very much, the irksome speech patterns of millennials. In a quick-moving one-act, Phillis’s self-deprecating Human Resources manager Patty covers everything from the early days of Netscape and dial-up modems to the present day of full-time social media as she stumbles through an inept introduction to Zoom video meetings, the bane and the salvation of many home-bound office workers during the Covid crisis.

It’s a lot to cover in only 70 frenetic minutes but Phillis does it with a delightful, goofy grace…

Her tattered Dress Barn business suit and frazzled 80s hairstyle serving as visual testament to decades spent toiling in the corporate trenches, Patty dances around the idea of Zoom, and Power Point too, and the longer she goes on, the clearer it becomes how little she actually knows about either. Imagine Dana Carvey’s “church lady” jacked up on caffeine, adrenaline, and perhaps just a tidbit of stage fright. Patty’s a corporate train wreck and you simply can’t look away.

When she stumbles (often) she gets plenty of coaching from an unseen tech assistant, whose annoyed comments act as punctuation for Patty’s non-stop blather, directed scattershot at herself, her audience, and her corporate overlords. It’s a lot to cover in only 70 frenetic minutes but Phillis does it with a delightful, goofy grace that earned plenty of laughs and sustained applause on opening night.

 

Main Stage West co-artistic director Keith Baker enjoys a cameo as “Kevin,” an underling who supplies her with props. Patty is never quite sure about names, a running gag throughout the show, and of course, a detriment for any human resource professional. That’s one of many repeated themes tightly woven into the fabric of this expertly conceived and executed production, its three-week run an injustice to its comedic brilliance.

A Zoom with a View runs Thursday-Friday-Saturday at 8 pm through September 11, with a 5 pm matinee Sunday September 5.

ASR Nor Cal Edition 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

 

ProductionPatty from HR: A Zoom with a View
Written byMichael Phillis
Directed byMichael Phillis
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough Sept 11th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$20 – $32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!YES!

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

Pierce and Wright (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

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

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

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

Pierce and Wright (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

Bordi and Craven (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

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

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

…conveyed with stunning conviction…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Cast members Cooper, Maxson, and Seghesio at work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ProductionSwallow
Written byStef Smith
Directed byMissy Weaver
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough January 27th
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4.5/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

*** 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! 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!

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! 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.

 

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