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 ASR Technical Review! Venerable Farce Well Rendered. “Tartuffe” at B8 Theater – by Team ASR

NOTE: The following commentary is focused primarily on the production, direction, and technical aspects of the performing arts.

 

Tartuffe at B8

A perennial of the comedic stage to this day, Tartuffe (or The Impostor, or The Hypocrite) was first performed in 1664 as a five act play. It is one of the most famous comedies by Molière, who is widely recognized as the ‘father’ of comedic farce. Or at least French farce.

The original version of the play was first staged on May 12, 1664 as part of festivities known as Les Plaisirs de l’île enchantée held at a modest venue known as the Palace of Versailles. In more modern times, Gérard Depardieu directed and starred in the title role of Le Tartuffe, the 1984 French film based on this play. And for those with a more musical orientation, composer Kirke Mechem based his opera Tartuffe on the play as well.

In short — it’s a well-travelled piece of theater that unfolds thusly: Devious Monsieur Tartuffe charms his way into Monsieur Orgon’s household. Monsieur Tartuffe schemes to marry Monsieur Orgon’s lovely daughter, seduce Monsieur Orgon’s lovely wife, and run off with all of Monsieur Orgon’s lovely money.

Sacre bleu!

Despite urgent protests about  Monsier’s Tartuffe’s evil intents from the all knowing family maid, Monsieur Orgon remains entranced with Monsieur Tartuffe — despite the appalling (and obvious!) evidence of Tartuffe’s behavior(s).

Will Monsieur Orgon see through Monsieur Tartuffe the con man before it’s too late?

Molière spins religious piety and hypocrisy into high comedy in this hilarious and biting satire.

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:
B8 Theater is to be commended for taking an unlikely physical location (a building which once housed a bank, complete with walk-in vault) and adapting the interiors to the purposes of live theater. That said, their thrust stage configuration does, by necessity, limit their set design options. The set for this show was simple, complimentary, and well rendered by Peet Cocke.
Furniture was basic and complimentary. (Score: 6/10)

Set Construction:
Decent quality given constraints. See “Scenic Design”, above. (Score: 6/10)

Stage Management:
Kourtney Branum’s stage direction ensured timely entrances, light changes, and sound cues. Proficient; especially considering the stage manager is still in college at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, CA. She has a future ahead of her in stage management. (Score: 5/10)

Sound:
Spare but well rendered. Decent quality effects/music. (Score: 5/10)

Props:
As presented, this show does not require a lot of props. Adequate, uncluttered. (Score: 5/10)

Costumes:
Very nicely done. Other theater companies could (and should) take note of Jeremy Cole’s work. Impressive. (Score: 8/10)

Direction:
Rhyming dialog is always difficult to work with. Particularly when the source material is a couple of centuries old. Cadences differ from one age to another. In this show, the actors sometimes got caught-up in the rhythm to the detriment of the storyline.

On another note, one of the actors was given an accent to use with her character. This was a mistake (a) at this level of theater and (b) given the complex nature of the rhyming dialog. Directors would serve their audience better by being very selective in the use of accents at local or regional theater levels, unless the accent is native (first language) of the actor in question and then only if the actor enunciates and projects properly.

Directing in a ¾ thrust stage has challenges. This director kept the actors moving yet clearly advised them not to be too concerned about, of necessity, having their backs facing one part of the audience or another. We often see actors who are self-conscious in this situation which detracts from the overall performance.

General/overall direction by Jeremy Cole was proficient for this level of theater. (Score: 5.5/10)

Lights:
Functional, basic. Andrea Schwarz took care to see that the ¾ thrust stage was well lit from all perspectives. (Score: 5/10)

Casting:
Better than average casting for a theater at this level. Excellent performance by David Ghilardi as Orgon and Janelle Aguirre as Dorine. Ms. Aguirre’s performance was hampered by the accent selected for her character. This is lamentable especially considering the obvious natural acting talent demonstrated by this actor. (See “Directing”, above.) Michael Craigen as Damis also complimented the cast and show. (Score: 7.5/10)

Overall Production:
A challenging script written (originally in French) in rhyme. A ¾ thrust stage in what used to be a bank. A new theater company. These are usually cues which point ominously to a long night of theater ahead. In the case of B8, this was not the case. Bravo for trying such a challenging piece. Above average casting and costumes helped. (Score: 7/10)

Overall Score: 60/100. See this show.

 

TARTUFFE presented by B8 Theatre Company
written by Molière, translated by Ranjit Bolt, and directed by Jeremy Cole

CAST
Janelle Aguirre
Michael Craigen
April Culver
Kim Donovan
David Ghilardi
Ryan John
Tavis Kammet
Ann Kendrick
Sam Logan
Emanuel Morales

RUN DATES
April 5 – 21, 2018

RUN LOCATION
B8 Theatre — 2292 Concord Blvd (@ Colfax), Concord, CA

 

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians, dancers, technicians, stage managers, and a host of other arts folks.

We don’t name names for obvious reasons — and Team ASR often buys their own tickets and do not announce their presence as such at a performance — but it is important to note that each Team ASR review is screened by one or more ASR Editors to insure a ‘fair’ review, warts and all, when appropriate.

The goal of Team ASR Reviews is to communicate directly with the technical staffs who are largely ignored by most reviewers. These behind the scenes folks work their collective butt’s off to mount a show, and they deserve well-intentioned constructive criticism from fellow artists as appropriate — and ditto for well-earned praise.

@@@@@ @@@@@ @@@@@

 

ASR Technical Review! Theater Rhino Breaks the Tech Code in Turing Play! — by Team ASR

NOTE: The following commentary is focused primarily on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

These days you can’t swing a secret decoding book without hitting a play, biopic, or documentary about Alan Turing. There is no question that Mr. Turing (1912-1954) was a mathematical prodigy whose genius left a legacy that remains scientifically relevant to this day. But it is the circumstances of his too-short life that continues to intrigue, inform, and inspire.

The hit revival of Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 Breaking the Code by Theater Rhinoceros at the Eureka Theater masterfully captures Turing’s professional assent, first for his contributions in developing computer science as we know it then later for his pivotal part in breaking the Nazi’s Enigma code that helped the Allies win World War II to his subsequent tragic fall from public grace for being homosexual. Whether by nature or necessity, Turing was a complex man who tried—and ultimately failed—to compartmentalize his life, leading to his apparent suicide in 1954. Directed by and starring Theater Rhinoceros Artistic Director John Fisher, this show is must-see drama.

This production is not “gay theater” nor is it a fringe work designed to incite people with too much anger for the world to scream Oppression! on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, typed furiously on their Taco Bell-stained laptop keyboard. This production ofBreaking the Code is quality theater of the first rank that could be picked-up and dropped unchanged into a venue like the SF Playhouse, Marin Theater Company or Aurora Theater.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

Too many community and regional theaters try misdirect the audience from lackluster acting and direction by self-conscious sets or visual effects. The set by Jon Wai-keung Lowe is ingeniously simple and forms a perfect backdrop for the events of Mr. Turing’s life, emphasizing the theory that it’s the acting that makes the play. (Score: 8/10)

Set Construction:

Dave Gardner’s set construction was well done and inserting doors into the blackboards stage left and right was a clever addition.  (Score: 7/10)

Stage Management:

Congratulations to stage manager Valerie Tu (soon to be interning at Chicago’s fabled Steppenwolf Theater) and her assistant Cat Howser for spot-on actor, lighting, and sound cues. Of note was having the actors re-position the furniture and props in semi-darkness between scenes. Mr. Fisher in particular seemed to be channeling Fred Astaire as he deftly and precisely accomplished his tasks during the scene changes.  (Score: 8/10)

Sound:

Colin Johnson’s sound effects were largely good although it was confusing when the office/typewriter effects weren’t always audible when the door into Mr. Turing’s room was opened. (Score: 7/10)

Props:

John Fisher’s props are spare but period proper and well rendered, an ornament to the acting, not mere set—or actor—decoration. (Score: 7.5/10)

Costumes:

Lara Rempel’s costume choices were first-rate, period proper, and well rendered. Period hose on the ladies was a nice detail, as was the damp T-shirt on Mr. Turing as he finished jogging.  (Score: 8/10)

Direction:

Clearly a well-rehearsed production, the direction was solid, professional, and well executed with twice the much-deserved applause because the director is also the lead actor. It is much more difficult to direct yourself than others but John Fisher did it seamlessly. Pacing was nice—brisk but not breathless. The show also used pauses well—a rare dramatic art these days.) (Score: 8.5/10)

Lights:

Jon Wai-keung Lowe and Sean Keehan’s lighting design was subtle and largely unobtrusive but with one hitch: on more than one occasion actors were performing between lights in a dim zone. (Score: 7.5/10)

Casting:

The gentlemen in the cast were solid and Mr. Fisher was simply outstanding. New or seasoned acting students should buy tickets to study a professional at work.

Frank Wang played hustler Ron Miller obliquely as a man made of angles and edges, each sharper than the last.  Val Henrickson, as Turing co-worker Dillwyn Knox, provided a witty performance as the neighborhood and cultural oracle of bad things to come.

Particularly enjoyable was Patrick Ross as empathetic detective Mike Ross, who seems genuinely hurt that Mr. Turing has blurted out a story revealing his own homosexuality, leaving the lawman no choice but to investigate Mr. Turing and charge him with gross indecency. The scene is hard to watch and the audience was silent save for the collective sign of 60 souls seeing a man put himself squarely in the crosshairs of the law.

Heren Patel assumes two roles in the show: an awkward school boy and a Grecian guy-for-rent whose stream of Greek-speech is both impressive and quite funny.

One acting note: when an actor is supposed to write something—in this case it was an address–on a piece of paper, the actor should quickly write the address down, not just apply pen to paper and scribble. Details always count, but especially so in a quality production like this.  (Score: 8/10)

Overall Production:

As produced by Theatre Rhinoceros  and expertly directed by John Fisher, Breaking theCode is thoughtful, taut, often funny, touching, heartfelt, and skillfully rendered. The drama is crisply written.  (8.5/10)

Reviewer Score:

From lights-up to lights-down, this fast-paced production is how quality theater is done. This is not a hard code to break: run, don’t walk, to see this show—and bring your friends.  (Score: 8.5/10)

Overall Score: 86.5/110. Very good work.

Breaking the Code by Hugh Whitemore, directed by John Fisher.

Theatre Rhinoceros, Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson St., San Francisco, CA 94111

Tickets at: http://www.therhino.org/buy.htm or 1-800- 838-3006

Run time: 2:10 with one intermission.

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians, dancers, technicians, stage managers, and a host of other arts folks.

We don’t name names for obvious reasons — and Team ASR often buys their own tickets and do not announce their presence as such at a performance — but it is important to note that each Team ASR review is screened by one or more ASR Editors to insure a ‘fair’ review, warts and all, when appropriate.

The goal of Team ASR Reviews is to communicate directly with the technical staffs who are largely ignored by most reviewers. These behind the scenes folks work their collective butt’s off to mount a show, and they deserve well-intentioned constructive criticism from fellow artists as appropriate — and ditto for well-earned praise.

 

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

 

ASR Technical Review! Shakespeare Does it Physically in Marin — by Team ASR

NOTE: The following commentary is focused primarily on the production, direction, and technical aspects of Theater and Performing Arts.

Ron Campbell has pulled off the near-impossible— he convinced the large opening-night crowd at Marin Shakespeare’s debut of their witty adaptation of Don Quixote (by Peter Anderson and Colin Heath) that he was both a man and a horse. Truly no mean feat, that.

Then again, Mr. Campbell is no mean actor. A man, a wooden broom and a watering can? Gesticulating arms and pumping legs? An energetic and comedic recitation of a classic text invigorated with new life? He’s certainly all of that, to be sure. But to stop there would be to damn with faint praise.

Instead, one simple phrase comes to mind: theatrical magic.

Mr. Campbell’s physical comedy gifts are so sublime that one could not help but believe that he was in fact Quixote himself. And Rocinante, the horse. Or both at once, in action on the stage. Mr. Campbell’s unquenchable dedication to seeing, feeling and embodying the evolving demands of each succeeding microsecond of the script and character represents a master’s thesis in acting.

Ably supporting Mr. Campbell was John R. Lewis as everyone’s favorite squire Sancho Panza. Panza translates literally in English to “belly” or “paunch”, and while Mr. Lewis was indeed suitably paunchy, he brought a world-weariness combined with a rich sense of humor and formidable physical comedy chops to a role too often played to its lowest common denominator. Solid marks for Mr. Lewis.

The play, making its U.S. debut, is ably directed by Ms. Lesley Schisgall Currier in a production that appears to a take on elements of the Commedia dell’arte style: spare sets, masked actors (thanks to the artistry of Mr. David Poznanter), and standardize costumes. Paired with hand-selected segments of the text by Miguel de Cervantes, the show unfortunately succeeds in feeling a bit like the books upon which the play is based— a bit tedious as the end draws neigh. The show starts out grandly and the first act moves quite briskly. The second act? Not so much. By the end of the show it felt somewhat like a long visit by a good friend: you’re at once delighted to have been so entertained but wish the evening’s festivities would wrap-up.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

Ms. Currier kept the set design simple and even spare, via the able design of Mr. Jackson Currier. Again, this may be intentional on her part vis-à-vis Commedia dell’arte. The back wall of the set is painted to appear as a library, featuring shelves upon shelves of books. This effect works well in Act 1, Scene 1, but once our hero had left his house in search of adventure, the library wall felt incongruous. (Score: 6/10)

Set Construction:

Set construction was solid, as the ramped “mountain” in center stage played host to a small army of people. (Score: 8/10)

Stage Management:

Stage management (from Gillian Confair) on opening night can sometimes be tricky as actors and technicians all work through opening night jitters. Such appeared to be the case here, with a few tardy scene transitions and actor entrances. Light and sound cues, however, were prompt and unobtrusive. (Score: 6/10)

Sound:

Sound levels suffered from some of the natural vagaries of outdoor theater: the actors’ voice levels dipping when they spoke off-axis to the audience, etc. The sound system speakers need bolstering, perhaps something along the lines of a couple of folded 18-inch speakers or a subwoofer to add bottom-end power to the mix. Body microphones would also have added additional presence. (Score: 5/10)

Props:

Props (from Joel Eis) were used only as needed and expertly rendered. (Score: 8/10)

Costumes:

Costumes (from Maria Chenut) tended toward a universal tan/brown in color, but were well-crafted. Care was obviously taken to bespoke the actors professionally. (Score: 8/10)

Direction:

The physical comedy scenes were well-rendered, if in need of a touch more rehearsal to make them appear a bit less, well, rehearsed. Comedic impact of the text would have benefited from tighter cue pick-ups and brisker tempo. No one knows the physical limitations of this stage better than Mr. and Mrs. Currier, so blocking was universally good throughout. (Score: 6/10)

Lights:

Lighting, like sound, can be a tricky beast outside, even in an amphitheater set below local ground level. A slightly more consistent, balanced lighting plot would have made the visual aspects of the work come off more seamlessly. (Score: 6/10)

Casting:

Full marks to Mr’s. Campbell and Lewis, as previously mentioned. The rest of the cast was competent and delivered reliable performances. (Score: 8/10)

Overall Production:

A solid, well directed new adaptation of a classic work which benefits from the efforts of one of the best physical comedians in the Bay Area. Outdoor theater comes with built-in technical challenges which were, to a large degree, successfully navigated. (Score: 7/10)

Reviewer Score:

A good outdoor effort of a version of Don Quixote which this reviewer hopes will benefit from a bit of a duration trim on its way to becoming a theatrical staple, and a tad of tempo tightening during its current run.  The play was very, very well-served by the addition of Mr. Campbell and Mr. Lewis. (Score: 7/10)

Overall Score: (75/110) Good work.

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians, dancers, technicians, stage managers, and a host of other arts folks.

We don’t name names for obvious reasons — and Team ASR often buys their own tickets and do not announce their presence as such at a performance — but it is important to note that each Team ASR review is screened by one or more ASR Editors to insure a ‘fair’ review, warts and all, when appropriate.

The goal of Team ASR Reviews is to communicate directly with the technical staffs who are largely ignored by most reviewers. These behind the scenes folks work their collective butt’s off to mount a show, and they deserve well-intentioned constructive criticism from fellow artists as appropriate — and ditto for well-earned praise.

 

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