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 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 Theater PICK! “She Loves Me” is a Charming Musical Romance at RVP — by Cari Lynn Pace

Photos by Robin Jackson.

Ross Valley Players has collaborated with the Mountain Play Association to present a light-hearted nostalgic musical filled with fine performances.

“She Loves Me” debuted in 1964. It’s based on the 1937 play “Parfumerie” by Miklos Laszlo, which inspired classic films as 1940’s The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail in 1998. An homage to Cyrano de Bergerac that takes place in a 1930’s Budapest perfume shop—Maraczek’s Parfumerie—the musical won multiple Tony awards for its 1993 and 2016 Broadway revivals.

The Ross Valley Players and the Mountain Play Association are two of the oldest theatre companies in Marin. Why is the Mountain Play collaborating with RVP for this special performance, not a part of the regular RVP season? “We want to become more of a year-round musical company and lend our support to others. We’ve been behind the scenes of the Ross Valley Players since one of their plays in 1935 (“The World We Live In”) was subsequently presented as our Mountain Play for that year,” explained Eileen Grady, Executive Director and Artistic Producer of the Mountain Play.

This charming and cheerful musical … is a great lead-in to the Christmas season.

“She Loves Me” enjoys an unusually lengthy run: five performances per week almost to Christmas Day. A familiar name to Mountain Play devotees is veteran choreographer/actor Nicole Helfer, who has shifted her admirable skills to direct this production. Multi-talented Jake Gale, who just completed a run as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Marin Musical Theatre Company’s “Rocky Horror Show,” serves as vocal director and also supervises the show’s music.

Photos by Robin Jackson.

A large cast of thirteen does a fine job acting, singing, and dancing in period costumes designed by Michael A. Berg. Petite Marah Sotelo is a standout as the store clerk Amalia, both in spot-on acting, gestures and a pleasing soprano voice. Max Kligman is well-matched as Georg, her “Dear Friend” mystery suitor, despite their amusing height difference.

Photos by Robin Jackson.

Another surprising talent (and this show contains many) is Anthony Maglio, who does a fine lothario shop clerk, then later becomes an aggressive waiter plagued by a clumsy busboy (Alex Munoz). Act I’s highlight has to be the hilarious café scene “A Romantic Atmosphere.” Store clerks are played and sung convincingly by Patrick Barr and young Alex Cook. Lovely Chelsey Ristaino balances out the staff and gets to steal a few scenes as she finds amusing library romance in Act II.

Photos by Robin Jackson.

Ron Dritz and Michael Walraven (also the show’s set designer) provide supporting characters. They’re joined by the song-and-dance moves of Dana Cherry, Katie Rose, MacKenzie Cahill, and a tantalizing tango by Sophie de Morelos and that clumsy busboy Alex Munoz.

This charming and cheerful musical is a bit long (2 ½ hours) with a first act of 90 minutes, but it’s a great lead-in to the Christmas season.

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

 

ProductionShe Loves Me
Written byAgatha Christie
Directed byNicole Helfer
Producing CompanyMountain Play Association and Ross Valley Players
Production DatesThru December 22nd
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.MountainPlay.org
Telephone415. 383-1100
Tickets$40
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! “Bluff” Choice Bits to Chew on in This Slice of Life – by Cari Lynn Pace

Cameron Stuckey is Gene and Anya Cherniss is Doubling Actress in “Bluff.” Photos by: Marc Bussin

Jeffrey Sweet’s newest play is billed as a dark comedy, although it’s more drama than humor. This 90-minute peek at a couple’s relationship breaks theatre’s “fourth wall” repeatedly, interacting with the audience in San Rafael’s Belrose Theatre. This is the perfect cabaret-style venue for this show. Actors access the stage from the wings as well as the back of the house, using the center aisle to surprise the audience.

Bluff begins with two actors on the minimalist set speaking their lines with a recitation of the script’s directions. Just when you’re getting the hang of their unconventional interaction, this artifice is dropped. Someone on the street is being attacked. Neal grabs his baseball bat to the rescue. The victim is patched up. It’s NYC, so the unnamed dude (Alvin Josephs) departs without a “by your leave.”

Emily (Isabelle Grimm) and Neal (Will Livingston) are left to get acquainted, the millennials who helped defend the victim. Emily notes “It’s a good thing you’re not a tennis player, as a racquet wouldn’t make as good a weapon as your bat.”

This 90-minute peek at a couple’s relationship breaks theatre’s “fourth wall” repeatedly…

They couple up and discuss living together. The dialog is ordinary but intriguing to eavesdrop. This is a good thing as the plot isn’t much. Emily has an apartment, and Neal wisely observes “If I move in, it will be “your” place, not “our” place.”

Despite reservations, Emily and Neal cohabitate her apartment. More conversations. Emily phones her hospitalized mother (Tamara Chandler) on the West Coast who laughingly brushes off her daughter’s concerns about drinking and health.

(L to R) Cameron Stuckey is Gene, Isabelle Grimm is Emily, Will Livingston is Neal in “Bluff”.
Photos by: Marc Bussin

Emily’s stepdad Gene arrives in town for a convention, and the tension between these two is immediate and unexplained. Gene (Cam Stuckey) seems affable enough, although it’s difficult to catch all his dialog. He’s a salesman and makes the effort to be sociable to Emily and her boyfriend, but Emily won’t move off her aggressive attitude. The guys bond.

A truth-telling moment occurs when Gene admits he’s been philandering. Emily realizes that Gene has been the only stabilizing force in her alcoholic mother’s life. Self-centered Emily isn’t the least bit grateful. She weighs her dismal options if she snitches on Gene. We never really see a likable side to Emily or learn what’s behind her unrelenting bitchiness.

Emily boots out her boyfriend.

Gene goes home.

Neal shrugs.

And the play ends.

In spite of the unfinished feeling to Bluff, making it seem more like a sketch, there are some clever nuggets. The playwright demonstrates his skill with improv to make the lack of props amusing. Gene asks for a real glass in the bar scene, and the waiter crankily responds, “You’ve been using pretend phones, why can’t you use a pretend cocktail?”

The comedic high point of Bluff is the unnamed part played by Anya Cherniss. She appears briefly in the opening scene and reappears much later as a sultry temptress engaging Gene at a bar. When her lines indicate she should exit the stage, she instead begins ranting to the audience about her character’s qualities. She takes center stage to whine that she should have more lines to speak, as she is a very capable actor. Director Joey Hoeber steps up to command that she leave. Breaking that “fourth wall” brings the biggest laugh of the show.

Despite the shortage of character development or motivation, theatre is meant to be entertaining. Bluff certainly fits that description.

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

 

ProductionBluff
Written byJeffrey Sweet
Directed byJoey Hoeber & Dianne Harrison
Producing CompanyJolee Productions
Production DatesFridays & Saturdays at 7:30 PM, Saturdays at 2 PM through November 16th
Production AddressBelrose Theatre
1415 Fifth Avenue, San Rafael, CA
Websitebrownpapertickets.com/event/4345503
Telephone
Tickets$25/advance, $27 at door
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

An Aisle Seat Theater Review! A Sharp-Edged Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, NTC Collaborates w/Theatre-at-Large by Cari Lynn Pace

Alison Peltz as Mrs. Lovett, Bruce Vieira as Sweeney Todd and Fernando Siu as Tobias Ragg
Photo Credit: Kristen Schutz

This fiendishly fine performance would make Stephen Sondheim smile with sadistic glee. It’s dark and diabolical, with singing, acting, costumes, and a two-level set as sharp as the shaving razor wielded by Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.

Directors Kim Bromley and Bruce Vieira (masterfully commanding the title role) are skilled veterans at their craft.  They handle the darkly humorous story of a vengeful barber with restraint, using a large cadre of actors and an even larger oven. Ragged actors move in from all sections of the theatre to sweep the audience into the malevolent background story.

It’s hard times in desperate 19th century London, and many morals have been suspended. A migrant sailor (handsome Cordell Wesselink) rescues a mysterious castaway who calls himself Sweeney Todd.  Bruce Vieira seems chillingly suited for this title role, giving it an imposing figure and dour countenance.

Todd is a talented barber who captures the admiration of the street scene by challenging the local barber and mountebank (mustachioed Dominic Quin-Harken) to a shave-off.  His young assistant Tobias (irrepressible Fernando Siu) is flexible when his master becomes not only the loser, but oddly lost to sight as well.

Don’t miss NTC’s Sweeney Todd… It’s deliciously devilish…

Todd sets up shop, and gains the attention of Mrs. Lovett (charming Alison Peltz), the widowed pie-maker, despite his character’s taciturn demeanor. Peltz is the award-winning actor who connives her way into making meat stuffing for her pies from the victims of Todd’s short-tempered vengeance. This unholy alliance brings delicious accolades and business prosperity while Todd bides his time for revenge on the Judge (snidely done by Charles Evans) and the Beedle (a fine role voiced by Mauricio Suarez).

The Judge and Beedle had sent Todd to a prison colony to pave the way for the seduction of Todd’s wife. Unfortunately, she took poison rather than succumb to their lecherous plans.

Todd has escaped and returns to find that his grown daughter (lovely soprano Julianne Bretan) is the ward of the very Judge who lusted after Todd’s wife. The libidinous Judge is now focused on pursuing the daughter. It’s all one can do to resist hissing at these bad boys.

As a child, some may recall the gruesome song “Dunderbeck’s Machine.” We laughed at the invention of his sausage meat machine, and the outcome, when we boisterously sang the lyrics. Let it be noted that Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street has added social elements that make it inappropriate for children.

Cordell Wesselink as Anthony and Julianne Bretan as Johanna
Photo Credit: Mark Clark

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street won multiple Tony awards, including best musical. There are a couple of recognizable songs including “(Nothing’s Going to Harm You) Not While I’m Around” and “Pretty Women.” The production possesses sufficient twists and turns in the plot to keep the audience entertained. Sondheim’s songs and lyrics are a real challenge, yet all are impressively handled by the cast who had countless rehearsals to do such an outstanding job.

NTC’s recipe for success is Hugh Wheeler’s book, mixed with Marilyn Izdebski’s choreography, and folding in the meaty music directed by Judy Weisen to bake up this tasty treat.  Don’t miss NTC’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. It’s deliciously devilish.

Playing now through November 17th at the Novato Playhouse, 5420 Nave Drive, Novato CA. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 and Sundays at 2 PM.  Shows suspended by the North Bay Kincaid fires will transfer to Thursdays, Nov. 7 & 14 at 7:30pm.

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

 

ProductionSweeney Todd: the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
Written byStephen Sondheim
Directed byKim Bromley & Bruce Vieira
Producing CompanyNovato Theater Company
Production DatesThrough Nov. 17th
Production AddressNovato Theater Company
5420 Nave Drive, Novato 94949
WebsiteNovatoTheaterCompany.org
Telephone(855) 682-8491
Tickets$24 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

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 REVIEW PICK! Ross Valley Players Catch Tremendous Show in The Mousetrap – by Cari Lynn Pace

Evan Held as Giles Ralston at RVP.

This whodunit? play is so well-loved that Ross Valley Players sold out their opening night and had to bring in extra chairs. For good reason. This character-driven and exciting play keeps the audience guessing – and delightfully entertained.

Agatha Christie, that prolific mystery author, stipulated that film and television rights to The Mousetrap could not be sold until the London production closed. The Mousetrap opened 67 years ago and set the record for the longest-running stage play anywhere.

Director Adrian Elfenbaum skillfully controls the action and pacing of this true murder mystery, with a cast of actors who go over-the-top in their roles and accents.

The action is nonstop, the clues fly everywhere, and the ending has the typical Agatha Christie twist.

Welcome to an English bed-and-breakfast manor as the new and inexperienced owners, charmingly enacted by Heather Buck and Evan Held, anxiously await their very first guests. As they plump the pillows, the wireless (Brit for radio) is reporting a recent murder in London.

Tori Truss as Mrs. Boyle; Maria Mikheyenko as Miss Casewell at Ross Valley Players.

The fun begins with the arrival of an outrageously enthusiastic guest played by Andre Amarotico. He’s followed shortly by a prune-faced spinster, beautifully acted by Tori Truss who captures every disdainfully arched eyebrow imaginable. She’s annoyingly critical and a good balance for Steve Price, the proper Major and helpful gentleman. Maria Mikheyenko poses as the next arrival, an odd and clever young woman with indeterminate plans for the future.

The final guest is one without a reservation, claiming his car was stuck in the snow. Robert Molossi arrives with no luggage and a heavy accent, immediately arousing suspicions by all.

The wireless chirps an update on the recent murder, and a local detective sergeant (Steven Samp) arrives to alert and interview the guests. The connections between the guests, the manor house owners, and the London murder develop in scene after scene. Suddenly, the lights are out and one of the guests is dead. A piercing scream (kudos to Heather Buck), cut telephone lines, and the chase … begins. But whodunit?

Heather Buck as Molly Ralston; Evan Held as Giles Ralston at work in ‘The Mousetrap’

No spoilers will come from this reviewer! The play has been a favorite not only for its puzzling mystery of the real killer, but for the fun to switch finger-pointing as more clues are revealed. The action is nonstop, the clues fly everywhere, and the ending has the typical Agatha Christie twist.

After the final curtain, a cast member announces “Now that we have seen The Mousetrap, you are our partners in crime. Please preserve the tradition to keep the secret of whodunit locked in your hearts.” It’s a worthy custom that will allow future audiences and generations to be caught up in The Mousetrap.

 

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

 

 

ProductionThe Mousetrap
Written byAgatha Christie
Directed byAdrian Elfenbaum
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru October 13th.
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415. 456. 9555
Tickets$17 - $29
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! Novato Theater Company Exposes Tragedies and Turmoil in “The Humans” — by Cari Lynn Pace

Photo by Fred Deneau

“The Humans” is a slice-of-life peek into a dysfunctional family’s Thanksgiving dinner. It starts with discord and never lets up. Fine performances by six Novato Theater Company actors rivet sharp-edged characters as they parry and thrust at one another.

Stephen Karam wrote his drama of three generations hiding secrets and resentments in a basement apartment (a great set by Michael Walraven). Add alcohol, irritating neighbors and faulty light bulbs to put this dinner on edge. Anyone want them as relatives?

Director Patrick Nims pulled fine performances from the actors to create cohesion from their criticisms. Brigid (Olivia Brown) is the youngest in this confrontational family. She starts out angry and stays that way, even when her helpful boyfriend (Ron Chapman) tries to be supportive. He doesn’t escape a grilling, of course.

“It was a challenge to memorize the gibberish in the script.”…

Brigid’s older sister Aimee (Alicia Kraft) has serious health and relationship turmoil, which she wisely keeps close to her vest. For sport, the sisters gang up to mock their mother (Laura J. Davies), reducing her to tears. Their father (David Francis Perry) gets shredded by both wife and daughters. It’s not pretty to watch, unless you’re fond of schadenfreude.

Marilyn Hughes, playing the frail and wheelchair-bound Momo, is particularly convincing. Her character doesn’t do or say much to provoke anyone, so her family mostly ignores her. Hughes notes offstage “It was a challenge to memorize the gibberish in the script.”

“The Humans” runs for 90 minutes, with no intermission, and contains adult themes and language.

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

 

ProductionThe Humans
Written byStephen Karam
Directed byPatrick Nims
Producing CompanyNovato Theater Company
Production DatesThrough Sept. 29th
Production AddressNovato Theater Company
5420 Nave Drive, Novato 94949
WebsiteNovatoTheaterCompany.org
Telephone
Tickets$21 – $27
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT REVIEW PICK! MSC’s “Spamalot” a Masterful Madcap Musical – by Cari Lynn Pace

In its 30 years, Marin Shakespeare Company has never presented a full-scale musical. Until now.

The second production in Marin Shakespeare Company’s summer trio of shows, “Spamalot” is the musical comedy written by Eric Idle and “lovingly ripped off” from the zany motion picture “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Take Idle’s wit, add John DuPrez’s music, mix in seven musicians, and toss in juicy bits from the madcap screenplay. Sprinkle in new sight gags and you have a riotous musical comedy.

Replete with several outstanding comic performances, “Spamalot” loosely spoofs “Camelot,” the King Arthur legend of Medieval England. Jarion Monroe stars as the would-be “King of the Britons,” who traipses about the countryside with his loyal talking horse Patsy (Bryan Munar), trying to convince hapless peasants to join him in a quest to find the Holy Grail and thereby somehow unite the country.

… a huge production that’s one fast roller-coaster ride of laughter.

The familiarity of several characters fades quickly as the plot takes their character arcs in unpredictable directions. Nonsensical scenes and characters are amusingly disjointed, including one particularly assertive Black Knight (spoiler alert!). The show is full of clever sight gags, hysterical physical comedy, and tons of goofy banter—the Lady of the Lake (Susan Zelinsky), who gives Arthur his mandate and his magic sword Excalibur—is described by one doubtful peasant as “a watery tart.” One hesitates to laugh too long for fear of missing what comes next.

Phillip Percy Williams as Sir Robin with Chorus at Marin Shakes

Michael Berg’s colorful costumes are over the top—reportedly totaling 700 pieces if you count each sock and shoe. Choreography by Rick Wallace is the kinetic equivalent, especially some of the large-scale production numbers. You can’t beat a bevy of chorus girls swinging maces for sheer entertainment. The excellent band led by Mountain Play veteran Paul Smith propels the whole affair from just in front of center stage.

Joseph Patrick O’Malley, a languid and fluid actor who first steals his scene with “I’m Not Dead Yet,” pops up in multiple ridiculous guises. The gorgeous Zelinsky sings with power and prominence in Act I, then disappears only to show up in Act II wearing a Norma Desmond-like caftan and turban, wailing “Whatever Happened to My Part?” while “The Song that Goes Like This” will be all too familiar to audience members who’ve seen their share of modern musicals. The finale tune “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” has the audience whistling along while the chorus line kicks up its boots. Truly a marvelous madcap romp.

Award-winning Marin Shakespeare Company is run by two tireless founders, Robert Currier and Lesley Schisgall Currier, who present an annual trio of outdoor productions at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre, on the Dominican College campus in San Rafael. One of the three is classic Shakespeare, one is “Shakespeare light” with alternative settings and language, and the third is a production far removed from the Bard’s influence, such as “Spamalot.” All are professionally and energetically presented by a mix of Equity actors and solid local talent, with interns in minor roles.

Director Robert Currier has a long history of updating Shakespearean comedies with unexpected adornments to plot, character, and setting. With “Spamalot,” he started with an outrageous script, and through superb choices in casting and direction has come up with a huge production that’s one fast roller-coaster ride of laughter. Don’t sit too close to the stage if you want to catch every line.

MSC has established a fine legacy among theatre-lovers from both sides of the curtain. Open seating (wooden benches with backs) can be made more comfortable by renting cushions at the gate. Nights can get cold when the fog rolls in, so dress in layers. Picnics are welcome.

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

 

ProductionMonty Python’s Spamalot
Written byBook & Lyrics by Eric Idle.
Music by John Du Prez & Eric Idle
Directed byDirected by Robert Currier
Producing CompanyMarin Shakespeare Company
Production DatesThrough August 25th
Production AddressForest Meadows Amphitheater (outdoors),
Dominican University of California 890 Belle Avenue, San Rafael, CA
Websitewww.marinshakespeare.org
Telephone(415) 499-4488
Tickets$10 – $38
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?YES!

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

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

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

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

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

Just let it waft over and enjoy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

An AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! 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 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 ASR Theater Review! Bottomless Laughs with “The Savannah Sipping Society” at RVP – by Nicole Singley

Cast of TSSS at RVP

Lost and looking for change, four middle-aged women forge an unlikely alliance over cocktails, romantic woes, and career changes. Fans of “The Dixie Swim Club” and “Always a Bridesmaid” will recognize the hallmarks of authors Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten in this laugh-out-loud comedy about strong southern women and the transformative powers of friendship. At Ross Valley Players through August 12th, “The Savannah Sipping Society” packs in an abundance of clever zingers and feel-good moments guaranteed to leave you smiling.

Uptight and overly-logical Randa (Monica Snell) is recovering from a meltdown and the loss of her high-pressure job, alone in a large house she can no longer afford and unsure of what to do next. Recently widowed Dot (Mary Bishop) is facing an uncertain future on her own, having retired to the area with her husband only months before his passing.

Heather Shepardson at work as Marla Faye in “Savannah Sipping Society”

Boisterous, bottle-toting Marla Faye (Heather Shepardson) is a recent arrival, too, fleeing a painful divorce and philandering husband in Texas. The three cross paths in the aftermath of a hellaciously hot yoga class, and with nothing to lose, decide to reconvene at Randa’s house for drinks.

The evening is off to an uncomfortable start when Dot shows up with an unexpected guest in tow. Bold and brazen beautician Jinx (Sumi Narendran Cardinale) is new in town, too, having spent the majority of her life-changing jobs and moving from place to place. She’s decided to try her hand at life coaching, and with a few drinks under their belts, the women agree to be her guinea pigs. We watch the group grow and bond through a series of hilarious misadventures, cheering each other on as they shake things up and work to overcome their fears and failures.

Monica Snell, Heather Shepardson, and Mary Bishop at work in RVP’s “The Savannah Sipping Society”

Thanks to good casting, awkward social tension evolves into real chemistry and camaraderie as the story progresses. Snell’s Randa is palpably high-strung and Bishop’s Dot is utterly endearing. Narendran Cardinale’s Jinx has spunk and swagger, although her closing monologue felt lacking in sincerity. The writing is strong enough to save the revelatory moment, however, and her performance is otherwise able.

Cleverly written and strongly felt, ‘The Savannah Sipping Society’ is as uplifting as it is hysterical.

Under Tina Taylor’s direction, the women offer up a heap of memorable quips with excellent timing. Shepardson is the stand-out, earning a sizable share of the laughs with well-delivered snark and sass. “Women who carry a few extra pounds,” she informs us, “live longer than the men who call it to their attention.”

The simple, charming set (designed by Tom O’Brien and constructed by Michael Walraven) remains more or less unchanged throughout the show. Miles Smith effectively highlights the characters’ different personalities with complementary costume choices. A chorus of crickets and summer thunderstorms (sound design by Billie Cox) – combined unwittingly with the heat and humidity of opening night – made for an immersive experience.

Cleverly written and strongly felt, “The Savannah Sipping Society” is as uplifting as it is hysterical. Dress for the heat, grab a drink, and sip along to your heart’s content – because according to Marla Faye, “drink responsibly means don’t spill it.”

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

 

 

ProductionThe Savannah Sipping Society
Written byJessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, Jamie Wooten
Directed byTina Taylor
Producing CompanyRoss Valley Players
Production DatesThru August 12th
Production AddressRoss Valley Players
"The Barn"
30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd, Greenbrae, CA 94904
Websitewww.rossvalleyplayers.com
Telephone415. 456.9555
Tickets$15 - $27
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5

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 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! 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! Tremendous “Ladies of Broadway” – by Barry Willis

Transcendence Theatre Company specializes in big-production mashups of classic Broadway musicals. The group’s spectacular “Broadway Under the Stars” has been a wine country summer destination for several years.

A recent addition to the Transcendence repertoire is “The Ladies of Broadway,” running the weekends of March 17-18 at the Marin Veterans Auditorium and March 24-25 at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa. It’s a showcase for seven hyper-talented female veterans of Broadway musicals, with backing by a huge and huge-sounding theater band.

Neither a classic musical nor a classic revue of showtunes, its premise is a loosely-connected story in which each performer relates her aspirations, travails, and successes in landing leading roles in big long-running musicals: Momma Mia, An American in Paris, Hairspray, Legally Blonde, We Will Rock You, Motown the Musical, and Wicked among them. There are also plenty of references to older blockbusters, including the works of Stephen Sondheim and Bob Fosse.

Every one of these young women is a double- or triple-threat, meaning they can sing, act, dance, and in some cases, play instruments or do gymnastics. All of them have fantastic stage presence, perfect comic timing, enormous huge vocal range, perfect pitch, and the ability to rattle the back wall of an auditorium without the use of microphones. Their solos are wonderful and their harmonies exquisite.

The show is a fast-moving feast of upbeat tunes, self-deprecating humor and quick-change antics that brings the audience to its feet not only at the show’s close but at intermission as well.

“Ladies of Broadway” is one of the most stunning assemblages of talent you will see on one stage this year—two hours of tremendous fun and an entertainment bargain. Don’t miss it!

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 Ladies of Broadway” by Transcendence Theatre Company

March 24-25

Luther Burbank Center for the Arts

Tickets: $39 – $139 Info: 877-424-1414, www.BestNightEver.org

Rating:  Five out of Five Stars

 

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

 

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! 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

 

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