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?-----

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 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 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 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! Pointless, Misguided “Straight White Men” at Marin Theatre Company – by Barry Willis

Straight White Men at Marin Theater Company

A Christmas holiday family reunion goes off the rails in Young Jean Lee’s “Straight White Men” at Marin Theatre Company, through July 8.

Directed by Morgan Gould, the one-act production has brothers Jake and Drew (Seann Gallagher and Christian Haines) converge on their family home to celebrate with brother Matt (Ryan Tasker) and father Ed (James Carpenter). In their 30s and 40s, the brothers immediately revert to middle-school antics when they get together. Some of this is funny, in the way that adults behaving like children can be funny, but most of it goes on too long. There are some comedic bits that are truly brilliant, such as Matt vacuuming the floor with great dignity, the brothers vamping like runway models in their new Christmas pajamas, or their extended faux-improv on the theme song from “Oklahoma” that emphasizes racial superiority and Nazi madness.

Scant comedy mostly provides a smokescreen for the lack of substance in Lee’s script, a thinly veiled attack on the pretenses and privileges of heterosexual Caucasian males. The brothers and father are all not merely straight white men, but the worst of their kind, liberal straight white men—those who pretend to be allies of the oppressed but are actually enemies.

Cast of “Straight White Men” at MTC

Ed is a retired engineer who runs his own social-good foundation; Jake is a banker whose kids “are half-black;” Drew is a novelist and tenured professor; the under-employed Matt spent ten years working toward a doctorate at Stanford, including a year in Ghana, as he describes it, “teaching things I didn’t understand to people who didn’t want to learn them.” To beat the audience over the head with their hypocrisy, Lee has them play a board game called “Privilege” designed by their departed mother.

The core of the drama is Matt’s depressed, rudderless existence. He’s overeducated, doing menial work and living with his father, whom he helps with chores and household maintenance. He carries a crushing load of student debt accumulated from a decade in pursuit of his dead-end Ph.D., and lacks the confidence to engage in conversation in a job interview. Brother Jake coaches him on how to do this, then brother Drew tries to help him with some feel-good therapy, telling him if he doesn’t follow through, their relationship is over. Ed whips out his checkbook and in a stunning act of generosity, offers to clear Matt’s debts. Then he boots him out. The end.

Where is the second act that resolves the can of worms that’s opened in the first? The whole production is just an arbitrary unflattering snapshot of some ordinary people. The essence of “Straight White Men” is little more than a few somewhat-related ideas looking for a structure. Despite the praise heaped upon playwright Lee in the program (and elsewhere), the story comes off as a half-baked work-in-progress. How it arrived at a major Equity house is baffling and unbelievable, but the acting is excellent—James Carpenter is our local national treasure; Ryan Tasker is terrific—and the set design by Lucciana Stecconi is wonderful.

The huge unanswered question provoked by “Straight White Men:” What is the point of all this? The script has no character arc and almost no dramatic arc. Second unanswered question: What is the point of the framing device of the two observers (“Person in Charge 1” and “2”)?  Person in Charge 2 (Arianna Evans) is a malevolent punk princess who glowers at the audience from stage left or right, looking as if she might inflict serious damage from her leather-clad fists should anyone dare to speak. Then there’s Person in Charge 1 (J Jha), a bearded representative of the gender-fluid community, who flits around in a lurex hoodie during fifteen minutes of deafening, screechy electro-thump as the audience finds their seats. It’s a lot to ask of paying customers, who are then treated to a lecture on the trendy misuse of personal pronouns and possessive adjectives, in particular, the use of “they” as a singular pronoun applied to individuals with multiple gender identities. How any of this relates to the story of the depicted family is a mystery.

Final question: What if an equivalent play were written by a straight white male about four Asian women, exploiting every conceivable stereotype? Critics would vilify it. Protesters would be lined up around the theater and down the block. They might even succeed in shutting down the production. Today straight white males are the only ethnic group that can be ridiculed with impunity. Keep that in mind when you sit down to endure your next sermon on political correctness.

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer: Barry Willis

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

 

 

 

“Straight White Men” by Young Jean Lee, directed by Morgan Gould

Through July 8: Tues-Sun, 7:30 p.m

Marin Theatre Company  397 Miller Avenue Mill Valley, CA  94941

Tickets: $22 – $60

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

Rating: Two out of Five Stars

ASR Theater Review! 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 Theatre Review! Quirky, Fascinating “Wolves” at MTC – by Barry Willis

 

A high-performing athletic team is very much a family, with all the closeness, cohesion, and dysfunctionality that “family” implies.

“The Wolves,” at Marin Theatre Company through April 8, is about one such family—a girls’ soccer team angling for a national championship. We never see them compete. Instead, all the action plays out before each game, on an indoor practice field where they train and rib each other about everything from typical teenage interests—parents, boyfriends, school—to issues they only partly understand, such as world geography and historical events.

Playwright Sarah Delappe has an expert’s ear for teen patois—her girls stammer and stall for time by inserting “like” in every other phrase, in near-universal rising intonation. She also has an intimate knowledge of athletes’ rough-and-tumble camaraderie—there are plenty of “f-bombs” hurled, none intended to harm, and the players, identified only by the numbers on their jerseys, often call each other “dude.” There’s a surplus of this stuff in the opening scene, which almost comes off as an overlong Saturday Night Live sketch, but the storyline takes a somber turn with the appearance of a talented new teammate claiming never to have played organized “football,” followed by a potentially career-ending knee injury to the Wolves’ star striker.

It gets more serious still with a tragedy that befalls the team, threatening to derail all their hard work, but they quite believably close ranks, more united than ever. It’s a beautiful moment about the empowering potential of loyalty and friendship.

Director Morgan Green coaxes excellent performances out of her ten-woman cast, all of them stage veterans and for the most part young enough to pass as high-schoolers. Of particular note are Portland Thomas as #11, with an amazingly relaxed and natural performance, and the energetic Sango Tajima as team captain #25, who pushes her comrades with a drill instructor’s grit and the shouting of almost comical slogans like “Teamwork makes the dream work!” Liz Sklar is outstanding in a cameo as the distraught Soccer Mom.

Approximately 90 minutes with no intermission, “The Wolves” is a captivating production and an unusual undertaking for Marin Theatre Company, which will host a final-day performance by the troupe’s understudies, most of them real high-school girls from Marin County. Their nickname: the “Wolf Pups.”

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

 

“The Wolves” by Sarah Delappe

Through April 15, 2018

Marin Theatre Company

397 Miller Ave, Mill Valley, CA 94941

Tickets: $10 – $49 Info: 415-388-5208, boxoffice@marintheatre.org

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

 

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ASR Theater Review! 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

 

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