AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! One Singular Sensation: “A Chorus Line” – by Cari Lynn Pace

“A Chorus Line” cast (Photo courtesy of Transcendence Theatre Company)

Every summer through September, friends flock to one of four different “Broadway Under the Stars” shows: mix-and-mingle evenings full of fresh air, picnics, fine wines, stunning scenery, and professional singers and dancers. These extraordinary escapees from the bright lights of Broadway and LA have a single goal: to give patrons their “best night ever!” And they do!

Eight years ago a small circle of NYC and LA performers took the summer off and held a song-and-dance fundraiser in the open stone ruins of Jack London State Historic Park. Their first “Broadway Under the Stars” was so well attended it raised enough money to keep the park open.

Each year the three original members, Amy Miller, Brad Surosky, and Stephan Stubbins, recruit more high-energy performers and friends to join them. Today, with over 55 stellar performers, Transcendence is a family of talented dancers and singers who love performing on the beautiful open-air stage in Sonoma’s wine country. They’ve raised nearly $500,000 from ticket sales to keep the park open and are proud to bring performances and classes to local schools.

Transcendence delivers a knockout show at Jack London State Park.”

The first show in their summer lineup under the stars is the award-winning “A Chorus Line.” It couldn’t be a more appropriate choice for Transcendence. Based on actual interviews, the story is about a group of dancers anxiously trying out for limited spots in a Broadway show. Every one of the performers on stage no doubt went through countless such auditions. Now here they are, under the setting sun and rising moon, dancing and singing to win a part they’ve already joyously earned. This is life imitating life. It can’t get more real than this!

Kristin Piro and Matthew Rossoff (Photo courtesy of Transcendence Theatre Company)

About the Transcendence summer experience: Cast members exuberantly welcome Bay Area patrons who come early to the park for a pre-show dinner picnic under umbrellas. Local musicians entertain on a small stage while food trucks line the meadow. Beer and wine vendors offer tastes and glasses of their finest.

At 7:30, just before sunset, patrons gather up their picnic items (and extra jackets) to head for seats in the stone ruins. The orchestra’s pounding beat brings forth a stream of high-stepping performers who belt out songs with sleek moves and smiles against the background of Sonoma Mountain. Broadway never had such a stage setting!

Catch the stars in Sonoma’s Valley of the Moon in one of four upcoming summer shows:

“A Chorus Line” runs Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings through June 30th.

“Fantastical Family Night” for the youngest friends begins July 19th for one weekend through July 20th.

“Those Dancin’ Feet” features world-class dancing full of passion, energy, and excitement, backed by a full orchestra. This program runs August 9th through 25th.

The finale of the summer shows is “Gala Celebration” to complete Transcendence’s magic of music and community, for one weekend only September 6th, 7th and 8th.

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

 

ProductionA Chorus Line
Written byBook by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante; Music by Marvin Hamlisch; Lyrics by Edward Kleban
Directed byAmy Miller
Producing CompanyTranscendence Theatre Company
Production DatesThrough June 30th
Production AddressJack London State Historic Park, Glen Ellen
Websitebestnightever.org
Telephone(877) 424-1414
Tickets$49-$154
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Drumming With Anubis” Wildly Entertaining at Left Edge Theatre – by Barry Willis

Mark Bradbury (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

In the galaxy of theater, the convergence of brilliant concept and brilliant execution occurs all too rarely. When it does, it’s a thing of beauty and wonder and a cause for celebration, like a solar eclipse or a blue moon.

At Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre through June 30, David Templeton’s “Drumming With Anubis” is all this and more. A poignant, hilarious exercise in magical realism, it finds a group of middle-aged geeks camped out on the edge of the desert, there for a weekend of male empowerment, macho drumming, personal confessions, and recollections about the glory days of head-banging heavy metal rock. Founded by a recently departed drummer named Joshua Tree, the Neo-Heathen Male Bonding and Drumming Society has gathered in part to lay Josh’s ashes to rest, and to welcome a new member to its fold—a mysterious and reticent fellow they call simply “New Bitch” (Mark Bradbury).

The similarity to the new recruit’s nickname and the name of the Eqyptian god of death and mummification is no coincidence, of course, and the connection becomes increasingly clear as the story moves on—something it does with panache and superb pacing under the direction of David L. Yen, who somehow managed to balance rehearsals and performances of the excellent “Faceless” at 6th Street Playhouse with rehearsals of “Drumming.”

. . . the most near-perfect production you’re likely to see this summer.”

Pallaziol, Sholley, Martinez, and Schloemp (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

Yen may have gone without sleep for weeks while doing this, but the results are exemplary—a very funny production delicately seasoned with moments of profound personal truth. Chris Schloemp stars as the group’s leader, a kilt-wearing electrical contractor named “Chick” who as a not-quite-successful drummer has lived a large part of his life in Josh’s shadow. Anthony Martinez is his sidekick “Bull,” a gruff-voiced barbeque entrepreneur given to dressing like a Harley rider, but a man with deep insecurities about his masculinity. Then there’s “Stingray” (Richard Pallaziol), a twice-divorced alcoholic struggling to hang onto his third wife and his job as a manager of multiple sporting goods stores. Keeper of the group’s rules is Neil (Equity actor Nick Sholley), a “professor of pop culture” with failing knees, who has never recovered from the loss of his lover Alex. Altogether, they are an incredibly talented and superbly-balanced group of performers.

Miller and Martinez (Photo Credit: Katie Kelley)

The campers poke fun at their own and each other’s foibles, punctuating each heartfelt revelation or silly joke (revealing any would be unfair to playwright and patrons) with drum riffs and chants of “Balls deep!” while mourning the loss of their founder. Into their midst comes Nicky Tree (the feisty Ivy Rose Miller), Josh’s young widow, seeking not only her husband’s pilfered ashes but some substantial psychological restitution from the ragtag assemblage. How she gets it and what they get in return—both as individuals and as a group—is the driving force of the play’s second act, amplified by a continually-more-assertive Anubis. It’s a powerhouse combination of tremendous writing, acting, and direction, all of it on a delightfully plausible set by Argo Thompson, with gorgeous background projections by Schloemp.

Prolific journalist, critic, playwright, and North Bay national treasure, Templeton with this project has ventured out of the autobiographical mode that characterizes most of his prior work. It’s a fantastically successful effort carried out by a troupe of artists who truly understand and embrace his vision. You’ll howl with laughter but moments later may find yourself wiping tears away—an emotional rollercoaster that’s both thrilling ride and rock-solid reward. “Drumming With Anubis” may be the most near-perfect production you’re likely to see this summer.

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

 

 

ProductionDrumming With Anubis
Written byDavid Templeton
Directed byDavid L. Yen
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough June 30th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: “Cabaret” a Solid Bet at Napa’s Lucky Penny – by Barry Willis

 

Ashley Garlick (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

The current American political climate has had some predictable consequences. Among them: a spate of theatrical revivals of Kander and Ebb’s “Cabaret,” a musical now in its 53rd year. The latest North Bay version runs at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions through June 16th.

The 1972 movie firmly established the show in pop culture—many people know the songs without understanding that the show itself isn’t a lightweight romp through the decadent underworld of Weimar Republic Berlin. The story’s time frame isn’t specific, but encompasses the rise of the Nazi party and increasingly virulent anti-Semitism. We often forget that the Nazi party was democratically elected, having gained popularity slowly but persistently throughout the late 1920s. By 1933 it was the most powerful political party in Germany. The parallels with Trump’s America are all too clear.

Directed by Ken Sonkin, this “Cabaret” is presented in shades of gray—except for the Nazi armbands, costumes by Rebecca Valentino are all black/white/gray. Lighting designer April George bathes the stage in flat yellowish light that gives the whole affair a grainy film-noir look. It’s an evocative effect but one that left this reviewer longing for more dramatic lighting, something that comes only late in the final act.

The core plot revolves around an itinerant American novelist, Cliff Bradshaw (a youngish Ryan Hook) befriended by German businessman Ernst Ludwig (F. James Raasch) on a train ride into Berlin. Ludwig knows the city intimately, and introduces Bradshaw to the Kit Kat Klub (the cabaret of the show’s title) and to Fraulein Schneider (Karen Pinomaki), proprietor of a rooming house where he takes up residence. At the club he meets a self-centered British songbird named Sally Bowles (a spirited Ashley Garlick). The two of them are soon deeply if contentiously involved.

Tim Setzer and Karen Pinomaki (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

A secondary love story involves Fraulein Schneider and fruit seller Herr Schultz (Tim Setzer), both of them in late middle age and deeply in love. The relationship between Bradshaw and Bowles is interestingly rocky and ultimately sort of pointless, but it’s the fate of Schneider and Schultz that hooks the audience. One of only three characters in the play who comprehend the inevitability of the approaching storm—the other two are Bradshaw and Ludwig—Schneider backs out of a late-in-life wedding, hoping to survive by “flying under the radar,” as we might say today. As stage director Michael Ross pointed out on opening night, Schneider and Shultz are the pair you’re rooting for. Setzer and Pinomaki are at the height of their considerable theatrical powers in conveying the sweetness and hopelessness of their characters’ relationship. The two are absolutely wonderful in this production.

The parallels with Trump’s America are all too clear.”

Denial of the obvious is a strong theme. As the tale progresses, the Nazi movement rises from potential menace to full tsunami, symbolized by a moment when the charming Herr Ludwig comes out of the political closet sporting a Nazi armband. Raasch is superb as the villainous but totally likeable true believer. Fraulein Schneider vows that maintaining a low profile will insure her survival; while Bradshaw tries desperately to get Bowles to leave Berlin with him—before it’s too late. Too hooked on minor league stardom to consider going elsewhere, she stays behind when he escapes to Paris. Herr Schultz is similarly clueless, believing that as a native-born German Jew he will be considered a German first. Setzer is magnificent in his portrayal of a kind-hearted man blinded by delusional hope.

Kirstin Pieschke and Brian Watson (Photo Courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

The show-within-a-show is the burlesque in the Kit Kat Klub, stunningly produced and performed by its Emcee (Brian Watson, the cast’s only Equity actor). Watson is spectacular throughout, as is the live music from a strong four-piece band led by Craig Burdette. Barry Martin is excellent in several minor roles—as Max, the club’s owner; as an inspector on the Berlin-Paris train; and as a Nazi officer. Andrea Dennison-Laufer is very good as Fraulein Kost, a resident of Fraulein Schneider’s rooming house, who makes her living entertaining sailors by the hour. Staci Ariaga’s choreography is entertaining without being too difficult for the assorted Kit Kat girls, and boys.

Opening night was marred by too much stage smoke and sound effects that overwhelmed dialog—problems that we were assured would be corrected immediately. Fifty-some years after its debut, not much about this show will seem shocking other than its message. Unique to this production is a final dismissal to Nazi madness: the cast tossing their swastika-emblazoned armbands on the floor like so much trash. It’s a great directorial decision, and a really satisfying gesture—one performed with silent conviction that no words could emulate.

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

 

 

ProductionCabaret
Written byMusic by John Kander and Fred Ebb; Book by Joe Masteroff
Directed byKen Sonkin; Music Directed by Craig Burdette
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough June 16th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Faceless” Brings Feisty Focus to Courtroom Drama – by Cari Lynn Pace

The cast of “Faceless” (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Live theatre can bring laughter or tears. You may leave feeling warm and fuzzy or puzzling over moral questions.

You’ll be immersed in all these vibrancies with “Faceless,” playing through June 2nd in the Studio Theatre at the 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa. This intimate theatre-in-the-round is the perfect cocoon for a courtroom clash. The audience is the jury, and the intense characters are ours to judge.

Susie (a hijab-wearing Isabella Sakkren) is a teen swept into the web of an internet ISIS “friend” and wooed into believing that she can be part of a new “family.” Arrested as she attempted to flee to Syria, she is now jailed and facing trial.

Susie’s dad, a hard-working single father (perfectly cast in Edward McCloud), still grieves the tragic loss of his wife. Was he so bound in his grief that he neglected to see his daughter becoming sullen and marginalized? Dad agonizes between consoling Susie and berating her for her empty extremism. He “mortgages the farm” to hire a top-notch defense attorney for his hostile daughter – a perfect role for Mike Pavone.

You may not want this 90-minute play to end.”

As for the prosecution, the lead attorney’s strategy (in spot-on acting by award-winning David L. Yen) is delightfully devilish. He theorizes that a female Muslim attorney on his staff would be the perfect choice for this touchy trial. He summons Claire (the lovely and spirited Ilana Niernberger) who wears her hijab with devotion, not faux faith.

David L. Yen (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

The dialog between these two attorneys is like watching rams clash. They slice through untouchable issues of religion, race, privilege, and predatory behavior with knife-sharpened repartee in an astonishing feat of writing by playwright Selina Fillinger. You may not want this 90-minute play to end. When it does, you alone will make the judgment call.

Director Craig A. Miller, former Artistic Director of the 6th Street Playhouse, worked two years to gain the rights to present “Faceless.” He has exercised impressive skill in staging the characters, enabling the audience to feel included in the courtroom drama.

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

 

ProductionFaceless
Written bySelina Fillinger
Directed byCraig A. Miller
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough June 2nd
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
Studio Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$18 – $28
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Cinderella” Delights at Spreckels – by Barry Willis

Law and Graham (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Move over, Disney.

An ancient fairy tale gets a modern reworking in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” at Spreckels Performing Arts Center in Rohnert Park, through May 26. Classicists will be relieved to learn that the story’s essential elements are still intact: a poor abused girl who dreams of a better life, her domineering stepmother and two nasty stepsisters, a magical fairy godmother, a smitten prince, and the promise of miraculous transformations.

Cinderella’s hope of exchanging her rags for the gowns of a princess is an expression of a persistent human dream, very much like the popular urge to buy lottery tickets week after week despite astronomical odds against winning.

In Cinderella’s case, she actually succeeds—she finds Mr. Right, he finds her, and after much travail they live happily ever after. It’s a timeless story—the basis of almost every piece of “chick lit” ever written. The plain yellow pumpkin still becomes a golden carriage, but Douglas Carter Beane’s version adds a new character and subplot in an attempt to make the story more contemporary: a radical firebrand named Jean-Michel (Michael Coury Murdock), who seeks social justice and economic opportunity for everyone. Instead of having his head lopped off instantly, as would happen in most real threats to ruling class hegemony, he succeeds not only in winning the hand of a mean stepsister (converting her to a decent person in the process) but in getting the prince to agree to sweeping changes to his kingdom. Cinderella wins the man and life of her dreams and her entire society gets to go along for the ride. Participation trophies for all!

Cinderella ensemble (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Director Sheri Lee Miller’s huge cast does a great job conveying the story—one with a 7:00 p.m. evening curtain time in anticipation that hordes of kids will fill the large theater. Brittany Law is marvelous as “Ella” the household maid renamed “Cinderella” by Madame (Daniela Innocenti-Beem) for the dirty work she tirelessly performs. Shawna Eiermann and ScharyPearl Fugitt are excellent as stepsisters Gabrielle and Charlotte, respectively, bringing more nuance to their characters than expected or required. Innocenti-Beem’s Madame takes delight in tormenting poor Cinderella, but has moments of surprising gentility and humor. Musical theater veteran Innocenti-Beem is likely the best singer in the cast but her role limits her to only a few lines of music. Her physical comedy and sense of timing are impeccable.

. . . excellent . . . superb family fare . . .”

Zachary Hasbany is superb as “Prince Topher”—the character’s name another nod to contemporaneity—with a good singing voice and fine sense of movement. The prince—a big guy himself—swings a giant sword in slaying a giant dragon (offstage) but the horse he rides is comically undersized. It’s one of few glitches in the otherwise excellent production. The worst is the huge suspension of disbelief required of the audience when Cinderella goes barefaced to the masked ball where the prince falls for her. Later when scouring the realm for her, he can’t recognize her until her foot fits the shoe she didn’t lose but intentionally gave to him. These twists on the original story aren’t improvements.

Larry Williams is gleefully evil as the conniving Sebastian, the prince’s minister, a sort of fairytale Rasputin, and Sean O’Brien matches him as Lord Pinkleton, another royal court sycophant. A gifted singer, O’Brien has a couple of breakout moments in the show’s many musical numbers. A high point is “Impossible” late in the first act, in which the ragged Marie (Mary Gannon Graham) is transformed into a fairy godmother who in turn transforms mice into liveried footmen, a pumpkin into a carriage, and Cinderella into a potential princess. Graham beautifully channels Billie Burke (Glinda the Good from “The Wizard of Oz”) in this bit, a duet of “Impossible” with Law, and the transformation is one of the show’s great illusions. Many times nominated for critical awards, choreographer Michella Snider is at her best. Group and individual dances and movements are delightful and take full advantage of the theater’s big stage and clear sight lines.

Set design by Elizabeth Bazzano and Eddy Hansen is gorgeous and facile, enabling quick set changes that keep the show moving briskly. Chris Schloemp’s huge colorful projections are stunning. Pamela Johnson’s and Chelsa Lindam’s costumes are gorgeous. Music director Paul Smith’s orchestra—in the pit, stage front—sounds tremendous. What’s not to like? All things considered, this “Cinderella” is excellent. Appropriate for all audiences, of course, it’s superb family fare that won’t require parents to do a lot of explaining when they get home—except for the fact that the “golden carriage” isn’t yellow. For that, you can simply say “It’s white gold.”

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

 

 

ProductionCinderella
Written byBook and Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein
Music by Richard Rodgers
Additional material by Douglas Carter Beane
Directed bySheri Lee Miller; Music Directed by Paul Smith
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough May 26th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$18 - $36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

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

Pierce and Wright (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

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

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

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

Pierce and Wright (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

AN AISLE SEAT 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! Astounding, Shocking Realism in “The Jungle” at the Curran – by Barry Willis

Jonathan Nyati and Ben Turner (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

A crisis in a refugee camp comes roaring to life each night in “The Jungle,” at The Curran through May 19. San Francisco is the third stop for this astounding international touring production, which originated in London and then moved to New York.

Conceived and written by Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, and directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin, “The Jungle” has won universal acclaim. The co-playwrights lived in the sprawling multi-ethnic refugee camp in Calais, France during its peak, 2015-2016, when its approximately 8000 residents lived peaceably if contentiously with each other while enduring continual harassment from French authorities. The production is a full-immersion experience that puts most of the audience in the midst of a large shantytown café — called “Salar’s Restaurant” or the “Afghan Café”— that served as a community center for the camp. The high-intensity story encompasses the final few months of the camp’s  existence, before it was destroyed by French police in October 2016.

Arya Rose Lohmor and Ammar Haj Ahmad (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

The elegant interior of the recently renovated Curran has been converted to a plywood-and-rough-framing temporary structure where the audience sits on hard wooden benches, sipping fragrant tea while arguments rage among the camp’s residents about what to do in the face of increasing pressure from French authorities. Several British aid workers try their best to help, to intervene, and in some cases, to transport refugees across the channel to Kent — a horrendously frustrating and occasionally comic effort for everyone involved. Two dozen impassioned actors wander among the audience, murmuring and shouting at each other in English, French, Arabic, Farsi, Pashto, Kurdish, and several African languages as the crisis builds, reinforced by real news clips on television sets placed here and there around the café (video design by Duncan McLean and Tristan Shepherd).

…the most intense and profound theatrical event any of us will ever encounter.”

A huge extended table serves as a thrust stage where most of the drama and a few moments of levity and hope take place — including several confrontations with haughty French officials and condescending police — interspersed with tales of unbelievable hardships endured by refugees from throughout the Middle East and Africa in their quest for a better life away from the violence of their homelands. Among these are stories of leaving behind all they owned, knew, and loved, walking thousands of miles, enduring kidnappings, torture, and extortion, and embarking on perilous attempts to cross the Mediterranean in overcrowded inflatable rubber boats or being packed by the hundreds into leaky ships with little chance of reaching their destinations. Such a tale is told in an unwavering voice by a clear-eyed Sudanese boy named Okot (John Pfumojena).

Ammar Haj Ahmad and John Pfumojena (Photo Credit: Little Fang, The Curran)

What these refugees endure in their quest for peace and freedom is horrific, as is their cold reception by Europeans. French duplicity gets deserved exposure as politicians pay lip service to human rights while planning to eliminate the camp. Despite its self-image as a nation of asylum, France does not have a glowing history in support of human rights — Haiti’s crushing poverty, for example, is the result of terms imposed by France when the island nation sought independence.

The show’s denouement is among the most shattering you are likely ever to experience in any theater. Its hyper-realism will shock you to the core and at the very least make you reconsider our own refugee crisis. “The Jungle” may be the most intense and profound theatrical event any of us will ever encounter.

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

 

ProductionThe Jungle
Written byJoe Murphy and Joe Robertson
Directed byStephen Daldry and Justin Martin
Producing CompanySonia Friedman Productions with Tom Kirdahy present the Good Chance Theatre, National Theatre and Young Vic production
Production DatesThrough May 19th
Production AddressThe Curran
445 Geary Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
Websitehttps://sfcurran.com/
Telephone(415) 358-1220
Tickets$25 – $165
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall5/5
Performance5/5
Script5/5
Stagecraft5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Praise for Hershey Felder’s “A Paris Love Story” – by Victor Cordell

Hershey Felder occupies a unique and enviable position in the world of live entertainment. He has created a series of solo theatrical performances that draw on his powerful strengths of master story telling and piano playing. And if the subjects of the shows aren’t all personal heroes, which they probably are, each is a brilliant star in the constellation of great music composers. He has written and performed music biographies for the stage of Gershwin, Bernstein, Tchaikovsky, Beethoven and more at some of the finest performance venues in the country, often breaking box office records.

He now takes on the life and works of Claude Debussy in a world premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. The great turn of the century composer is credited as the originator of the classical music genre of impressionism, though he didn’t care for the term. But his compositional style led to the designation because of its parallel with impressionist painting with its shimmering, ethereal quality like the dizzying, elusive mix of colors on canvas representing tangible items.

As with his previous successes, Felder weaves together a composer’s music with biographical highlights, but the structure of his newest work differs. He avows that Debussy actually is his favorite composer. At the age of 19, Felder visited Paris and haunted the places and followed the footsteps where Debussy trod, including a pilgrimage two hours on foot each way to visit the composer’s apartment. Because of this special connection with Debussy, Felder’s theatrical conceit is to insinuate his own story in with that of the composer. The device works well both because Felder himself has a following and because of his personal passion for the composer and the city. The one jolting aspect of the new production is that in Felder’s catalog of titles written for the stage, Debussy’s name does not appear except in the likely ignored third line of the title.

Felder (Photo Credit: Christopher Ash)

The performance takes place on a darkened stage, with a few props emblematic of Paris. Animated chalk figures festoon a black backdrop to further depict the architecture and the ambiance of the city. Hershey Felder plays with brio at the black Steinway grand and regales, often with great humor. Interspersing his own growth and his travelogue with the compositions and many loves of Debussy, he details many vignettes, including attempted suicides by two of his love interests.

Despite his esteem as a respected composer, Debussy works are perhaps not as broadly popular as Felder’s other honorees. Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and La Mer are well known, and opera aficionados will know the important opera Pelléas and Mélisande, though it is seldom performed or excerpted onto recordings. But the musical extracts that Felder plays charm and scintillate, including those less likely to have been heard by audience members before. The jaunty piano solo for children, Golliwog’s Cakewalk, is a fine example that also reflects the composer’s iterative relationship with African-American musical forms.

…clever and enticing… engenders anticipation…”

Felder does note the critical role that Debussy’s innovativeness played in directing classical music away from the weightiness of Wagnerian romanticism. Debussy felt that music should reflect the delightful way people feel when they engage with nature. Influenced by a Javanese gamelan performance he witnessed in 1889, he adopted the whole note scale, which facilitates the dreamy sound that is associated with impressionism. With this change, he not only disrupted the direction of classical music but also developed the musical vocabulary that led to improvisational jazz as best realized by the great pianist Art Tatum.

Felder (Photo Credit: Christopher Ash)

Of course, Debussy’s signature piece which makes him a household name and exemplifies his dream-like musical style is Claire de lune. Felder’s treatment of this piece is clever and enticing. He opens the performance with the story of how he learned the piece, his mother’s favorite, at age six. By playing only a brief but familiar phrase from it, he engenders anticipation for the work throughout the performance. It comes as the finale, and it is played with such grace and delicacy that it quieted the venue and had the audience on the edge of its seats – a worthy finish to a fine confection.

This review must close on a tragic note. As I write on April 15, 2019, one of the world’s great architectural masterpieces and cultural assets for all of civilization, Paris’s Cathédrale de Notre Dame, is engulfed in flame. This is a great loss to humanity. Indeed, this landmark is significant to A Paris Love Story, as the author speaks warmly of Notre Dame and of the magic of point zero, the designated spot in front of the cathedral that represents the symbolic center of Paris. The spot will remain, but can any of the cathedral be saved or reclaimed for posterity?

ASR reviewer Victor Cordell is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and the American Theatre Critics Association, and a Theatre Bay Area adjudicator.

 

 

ProductionA Paris Love Story
Written byHershey Felder
Directed byTrevor Hay
Producing CompanyTheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Production DatesThrough May 5th
Production AddressMountain View Center for Performing Arts
500 Castro Street
Mountain View, CA 94041
Websitewww.theatreworks.org
Telephone(650) 463-1960
Tickets$35 – $113
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

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

Bordi and Craven (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

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

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

…conveyed with stunning conviction…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Laughs Served Well-Done in “Barbecue Apocalypse” – by Nicole Singley

Headington and Coughlin (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Do you have what it takes to survive the end of days? Three couples put their skills to the test in Matt Lyle’s tremendously funny “Barbecue Apocalypse,” playing at Rohnert Park’s Spreckels Performing Arts Center through April 20th.

Thirty-somethings Deb (Jessica Headington) and husband Mike (Sam Coughlin) are frantically preparing to host their closest frenemies for a backyard cookout. Bemoaning their half-mowed lawn, mismatched patio furniture and dorm room-esque house decor, Deb fears they can’t possibly impress well-to-do “yupsters” Lulu (Lyndsey Sivalingam) and husband Ash (Trevor Hoffmann), or sleazy penthouse-dwelling Win (J.T. Harper) and his younger girlfriend Glory (Katie Kelley). Mike’s crowning achievement, after all, is the humble deck they’re standing on, and neither he nor Deb can keep a simple garden plant alive.

Clockwise, left to right: Headington, Coughlin, Harper, Sivalingam, Hoffmann (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

When a calamitous event interrupts their awkward party, the group must find their niche in a post-apocalyptic world where once-considered strengths may now be vulnerabilities, and talents formerly perceived as useless could be advantageous. This brave new world offers Mike and Deb a chance to shine, while alpha-male Win shrivels from over-confident womanizer into sobbing, bathrobe-clad mess. Dynamics shift but the grill goes on, until an uninvited guest (Matt T. Witthaus) threatens to end the festivities once and for all.

Don’t miss this witty, laugh-a-minute romp…”

Headington is a riot as neurotic housewife turned spear-wielding survivalist. She makes the jarring transition with remarkable ease, hauling in act two’s blood-spattered dinner – “raccoon, the other red meat!” – with an air of self-possession entirely in contrast to her anxious, pre-apocalyptic stumbling over cocktail umbrellas and fashion accessories. It’s equally satisfying to watch Coughlin’s understated Mike transform from insecure would-be writer to confident grill-master and gardener extraordinaire.

Sivalingam is superb as lovably pretentious Lulu, whose flippant remarks flow faster than the mango margaritas she’s a little too fond of. Hoffmann’s Ash is the painfully familiar portrait of a modern-day screen junkie, forced to settle for library books in a now Google-less world. The apocalypse, as luck would have it, is a boon to their marriage, bringing Lulu back down to earth and pulling Ash away from YouTube. It’s fun to watch their newfound spark ignite.

Clockwise, left to right: Headington, Kelley, Harper, Sivalingam (Photo Credit: Jeff Thomas)

Harper’s Win feels a bit overdone, dripping in stereotypical frat-boy machismo. It’s a hat that doesn’t quite fit, although it serves its comedic purpose all the same. Kelley is endearing in the role of a perky wannabe Rockette, even though she spends much of her time onstage aggressively swapping spit with Harper. Witthaus delivers a truly chilling cameo appearance.

An able cast excels under Larry Williams’s direction, assisted by Marcy Frank’s pitch-perfect costumes and Elizabeth Bazzano’s thoughtful backyard set. Jessica Johnson brings finicky lawn mowers, angry raccoons and propane grills to life with well-timed sound effects.

Marinated in millennial-centric humor, “Barbecue Apocalypse” makes lighthearted fun out of some fairly dark subject matter. Don’t miss this witty, laugh-a-minute romp – or you just might live long enough to regret it.

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

 

ProductionBarbecue Apocalypse
Written byMatt Lyle
Directed byLarry Williams
Producing CompanySpreckels Performing Arts
Production DatesThrough April 20th
Production AddressSpreckels Performing Arts Center
5409 Snyder Lane
Rohnert Park, CA 94928
Websitewww.spreckelsonline.com
Telephone(707) 588-3400
Tickets$16-$26
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: “A Perfect Ganesh” Imperfectly Rendered at Cinnabar – by Barry Willis

Two upper-middle-class middle-aged women find that a journey through India turns their contentious relationship into something deeper and more rewarding in “A Perfect Ganesh,” directed by Michael Fontaine at Petaluma’s Cinnabar Theater through April 14.

Terence McNally’s AIDS-era story has huge potential to be both heart-rending and heart-warming, a potential that’s sadly under-exploited in this flat, lugubrious production. The two women, Margaret Civil (Laura Jorgensen), and Katharine Brynne (Elly Lichenstein), alter their usual holiday plans for an adventure in India, an undertaking that prompts anxiety in both of them, heightened by an opening-scene mishap with their airline tickets that threatens to make them miserable. Watching over them is Ganesha (Heren Patel), god of luck and opportunity, the travelers’ unseen companion. He appears at each critical moment in the story, guiding and helping but never intruding. The title refers to Katharine’s incessant search for a keepsake figurine, one of many behaviors that annoy Margaret.

Civil is cranky and demanding; Brynne forgetful, eagerly curious. They know each from their social circle in an uppercrust part of Connecticut, not really close when first introduced to us, but reasonably comfortable with each other. Their constant bickering belies their friendship, whose evolution is the play’s dramatic arc. It’s an arc that goes far—the two become close after several revelations of private tragedies and sharings of personal truth—but not very high. The dramatic peaks and valleys that might have given this story emotional texture have mostly been leveled and filled. Both actresses are veterans of long experience, so this squashing of emotional dynamics can only be interpreted as a directorial decision.

…as arduous as a train ride through India.”

Heren Patel is competent as the elephant-headed god, with an amiable, sometimes comedic delivery. His movements are elegant and fluid but his elephant headpiece interferes with the clarity of his speech. It’s not clear if some of his funny bits are intentional, such as Ganesha’s appearance to the travelers in the form of a Japanese tourist with an almost Italian accent.

The show’s saving grace is John Browning, who confidently plays all the male characters referred to by Margaret and Katharine—suitor, husband, son, and more. He also appears as many incidental characters—ticket agent, porter, guide—completely changing character with only slight changes in costume.

The music by Christopher and Marni Ris is compelling, but the stagecraft is slow and noisy as large pieces get shoved about and huge curtains pulled back and forth. The playbill lists running time at two and a quarter hours, but on opening weekend it was closer to three, or seemed like it. Like any foreign journey, “A Perfect Ganesh” offers experiences and insights available no other way, but getting to them is likely to feel as arduous as a train ride through India.

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

 

ProductionA Perfect Ganesh
Written byTerrence McNally
Directed byMichael Fontaine
Producing CompanyCinnabar Theater
Production DatesThrough April 14th
Production Address3333 Petaluma Blvd North
Petaluma, CA 94952
Websitewww.cinnabartheater.org
Telephone (707) 763-8920
Tickets$28 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall2.5/5
Performance3/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft2/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: Great Acting Can’t Overcome Script in “The Revolutionists” – by Barry Willis

The French Revolution was a bloody mess. That’s putting it in the mildest possible terms. The country’s 18th century bankruptcy and crushing poverty led to an uprising that in turn became the Reign of Terror in which many thousands of real and imaginary enemies of the new state were imprisoned and killed. A civil war was a strong possibility.

At the same time, surrounding countries fearing that anti-royalty sentiment would spread, and seeing many opportunities in a weakened France, sought to conquer the bourgeoning democracy. This set the stage for the rise of the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, one of history’s most egomaniacal and brutal dictators.

Almost 17,000 people were executed during the peak year of the Reign of Terror, from summer 1793 to summer 1794—an average of 45 per day, a sustained orgy of head-chopping. Many executions took place in Paris; the guillotine was a popular form of entertainment. All this to establish a new form of government and economy based on the slogan “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (freedom, equality, brotherhood)—high ideals riddled with hypocrisy, as playwright Lauren Gunderson makes clear in “The Revolutionists,” in the studio theater at 6th Street Playhouse through April 7.

Flores and Revelos (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Gunderson places one fictional and three historical figures into her theatrical caldron then applies heat to see what will happen, with mixed results. The primary figure is writer and political activist Olympe de Gourges (Equity actress Tara Howley Hudson), a champion of the rights of women and minorities and an outspoken critic of the Reign of Terror who went to the guillotine on November 3, 1793. Two strong secondary characters are Marie Antoinette (Lydia Revelos, fantastic), whose lavish spending was widely believed to be the cause of France’s massive financial problems, and Charlotte Corday (Chandler Parrott-Thomas), who assassinated revolutionary firebrand Jean-Paul Marat and was beheaded four days later. The fourth figure is Marianne Angelle (Serena Elize Flores), a fictional character who advocates for the rights of women and oppressed minorities. “How about liberté, égalité, sororité?” she asks.

…compellingly rendered and superbly well performed, but… doesn’t overcome the script’s fundamental difficulties.” 

Both stagecraft and acting are first-rate under the direction of Lennie Dean, especially by Hudson and Revelos, but this adventure into “metatheater” is seriously overwrought, the kind of play that might be more at home as a graduate effort by an art school drama club. The characters interact with each other—only experts in French history could state whether any of them actually met—and with their audience, smothered with abstruse intellectualisms as only the French can spin them, and arcane (for Americans, anyway) historical references. Ultimately, we learn that the whole convoluted affair is something bubbling in Olympe de Gourges’s soon-to-be-detached head, as she struggles to do something with enduring impact in her last few days—a dramatic structure very much like the film “Jacob’s Ladder,” where the final reveal is that the foregoing story has taken place in a dying soldier’s mind.

“The Revolutionists” is compellingly rendered and superbly well performed, but the excellence of the performance doesn’t overcome the script’s fundamental difficulties. It’s a prickly but rewarding show for those with theatrical fortitude and better-than-average understanding of both history and its presentation as entertainment. The Thursday April 4 performance features a talkback after the show, recommended.

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

 

ProductionThe Revolutionists
Written byLauren Gunderson
Directed byLennie Dean
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough April 7th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
Studio Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$18 – $28
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script3/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Bingo, the Musical” Offers Great Silly Fun – by Barry Willis

Through April 7, the intimate stage at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions is transformed into a VFW bingo hall where three women brave the elements to vie for power, glory—and maybe a handful of petty cash—in a raucous production of “Bingo, the Winning Musical.”

The friends, Vern, Honey and Patsy, dead-serious Bingo fanatics all, converge to compete on the fifteenth anniversary of Vern’s split with her former friend Bernice (Jennifer Brookman), an event so traumatic that the two have never reconciled. It’s an injustice that Bernice’s daughter Alison (Pilar Gonzalez) is determined to make right.

Lundstrom, Innocenti Beem, and Rider (Photo courtesy of Lucky Penny Productions)

Outlandish challenges—“I’m a professional bingo player!” shouts Vern (the irrepressible Daniela Innocenti Beem)—an attempted seduction of the game’s number caller Sam (Tim Setzer) by the flirtatious Honey (Shannon Rider), and the invocation of spirits, talismans, and good-luck charms by the addled Patsy (Sarah Lundstrom) are only part of the fun, all watched over by Minnie (Karen Pinomaki), a mischievous sprite who manages the hall, an authentic recreation of such places found in almost every town in America. Lucky Penny’s set includes a real numbers board, a rotating hopper to randomize the balls, and bingo cards for each member of the audience, encouraged to play along at least three times in the course of the show. Napa just happens to be home base for a major distributor of bingo equipment. Who knew?

Infectiously energetic… great silly lightweight fun…”

Add to this some spectacular singing in ensemble numbers such as “Girls Night Out,” “Anyone Can Play Bingo,” “I  Still Believe in You,” “Under My Wing,” and “Ratched’s Lament.” Solo numbers are also superb (music direction by Craig Burdette), including “I’ve Made Up My Mind” (Alison), “Patsy’s Flashback,” “Swell” (Vern), and “Gentleman Caller” (Honey). Where else can you see a “straightjacket ballet” (choreography by Staci Arriaga and Taylor Bartolucci) in which bingo gals go all out like a bunch of lunatics recently released from the asylum? Does bingo make its players crazy or are they a little bit that way from the start?

Infectiously energetic, “Bingo, the Winning Musical” doesn’t offer profound messages or cosmic revelations, but—perhaps more appealing—it does ultimately set aside the petty resentments that infect us all in favor of enduring friendship among charmingly ordinary people. Tickets are money well spent on a couple hours of great silly lightweight fun with the added benefit of a potential sweep of “blackout” or “crazy snakes.” You can’t win if you don’t play.

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

 

ProductionBingo, the Winning Musical
Written byMichael Heitzman, Ilene Reid and David Holcenberg
Directed byTaylor Bartolucci; Music Directed by Craig Burdette
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough April 7th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$30-40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “The Nether” Enthralls at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

Imagine a virtual world in which you are free to live out your darkest fantasies without repercussion – a perfectly rendered, immersive escape from reality, wherein you can look, speak, and act as you please, your identity securely concealed.

But what makes something real? If a virtual experience has the power to make us think and feel, is it truly artificial? Are our choices ever free from consequence?

By turns philosophical and eerily prophetic, “The Nether” – making its Sonoma County premiere at Left Edge Theatre through March 24th –invites us into such a world, raising these and many other timely questions about morality and culpability in the digital era. But before “logging in,” users be warned: unsettling subject matter is in no short supply here.

Schloemp and Rosa (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

We open on a bleak interrogation room at an unspecified time in the future. Detective Morris (Leila Rosa) sits across from a man in old-fashioned clothing with a guarded demeanor. What was once the internet has evolved into the Nether – an immense network of online realms in which students attend virtual schools, employees telecommute to virtual offices, and people like Mr. Sims (Chris Schloemp) log in to indulge their innermost desires.

Sims – or “Papa,” as his avatar is known – is the proprietor of a realm dubbed the Hideaway, an elaborately designed Victorian home conjuring up a hypnotic nostalgia for simpler times past with its ornate furniture and poplar-lined vistas. Visitors can enjoy a stiff drink, dance along to old records on the gramophone, or molest and dismember prepubescent girls.

Morris is determined to shut the Hideaway down and hold Sims accountable for his gruesome crimes – crimes committed, that is, by and against avatars in the Nether. But has anyone really been hurt? Morris presses Hideaway participant Mr. Doyle (David L. Yen) for incriminating details, her own composure slowly crumbling in the process.

Wright and Spring (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

We cut between the interrogation room and scenes inside the Hideaway, where we meet Iris (the stellar Lana Spring) – Papa’s favorite little girl – and Mr. Woodnut (Jared N. Wright), an undercover agent sent to gather evidence for Morris’s investigation. Mr. Woodnut has honorable intentions, but soon discovers the lines between personal and professional – as well as virtual and actual – are hard to draw inside this realm. He is bewitched by the Hideaway and all it has to offer, becoming himself a reluctant participant in Papa’s twisted world.

…haunting, thought-provoking, and disturbingly relevant…”

It is evident Director Argo Thompson has chosen his cast with care. Schloemp brings grace and finesse to a difficult role, making Sims remarkably sympathetic given his deviant inclinations. Wright is compelling as the well-meaning detective, grappling with unexpected temptation and fearful self-reflection. Yen delivers a surprisingly heart-rending performance as the reticent and wounded Mr. Doyle. Spring’s Iris is ethereal and deeply felt, adding much to the story’s emotional impact. (It’s important to note that Spring is an adult, and that the worst of what happens is not depicted on-stage.)

Rosa is arguably the only weak link. She doesn’t seem at home in her role, and the opening scenes are a bit awkward because of this. Her behavior may be intentional, however, given what we learn later in the show.

Yen (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Thompson’s set anchors the interrogation room at its center, flanked on both sides by rooms within the Hideaway, keeping us tethered to reality as we experience the virtual world. His crew has chosen fitting furniture and props for the Hideaway, and the interrogation room feels adequately cold and futuristic. Schloemp’s projections are an effective enhancement, transforming the interrogation room’s table into an interactive portal to the Nether.

Joe Winkler has set the show to an appropriately ominous soundtrack, from floor-shaking electronic overtures to the crackle and pop of old-timey tunes on Papa’s Victrola. There’s a moment of eerie dissonance near the show’s end when the soundtracks from both worlds collide, as the real and virtual begin to meld.

Act one is weighed down by philosophical quandary and is slow to build momentum. When the pieces begin to fall together, however, the pace accelerates into a second act rich with chilling developments and surprising revelations, and an ending that begs as many questions as it answers.

Though not for the faint-hearted, “The Nether” is a haunting, thought-provoking, and disturbingly relevant ride well worth taking if you can stomach the subject matter. Playwright Jennifer Haley pulls us out of our comfort zone and thrusts us into this dark exploration of a not-so-far-off future that could very well become our own.

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

 

 

ProductionThe Nether
Written byJennifer Haley
Directed byArgo Thompson
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 24th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

 

 

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Rollicking “Million Dollar Quartet” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

In recent years the jukebox musical has become a staple of American theater, in which a collection of great songs gets tied together with a plausible narrative and dramatic arc. “Million Dollar Quartet” fits snugly into this tradition, at Santa Rosa’s 6th Street playhouse through March 24.

A fictionalized account of a real event—an evening in early December, 1956, when Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley converged and performed at Sun Studios in Memphis—the show is a rousing piece of Americana and a tour de force of iconic early rock ’n’ roll. An amalgam of African-American blues and gospel and white Southern folk music, rock emerged in the postwar period, giving voice to a new generation and shocking the cultural establishment both in the United States and Europe. Its pervasive effects continue to this day.

…a rousing piece of Americana and a tour de force of iconic early rock ’n’ roll… do not miss this show.”

Directed by Bay Area theater veteran Michael Ray Wisely, who has performed in and directed other productions of “Million Dollar Quartet,” the 6th Street show features two performers from the national touring production—Daniel Durston as Elvis and Steve Lasiter as Johnny Cash. Sonoma County actor/musician Jake Turner is superb as Carl Perkins, as is his guitar playing, and music director Nick Kenrick is astounding as the frenetic Jerry Lee Lewis.

(Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Samantha Arden does a lovely turn as Dyanne, Elvis’s girlfriend, while Benjamin Stowe anchors the whole affair as Sam Phillips, the producer/recording engineer widely acknowledged as the “Father of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” And let’s not forget drummer Nick Ambrosino and bassist Shovanny Delgado Carillo, who provide infectious drive to the music of the four ersatz superstars. Conor Woods’s adaptation of the original set design is substantial, compelling, and versatile.

The song list includes a couple dozen classics from the early 1950s, including “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Hound Dog,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’,“ all of them stunningly rendered. This reviewer saw the national touring production, and 6th Street’s is just as good. If you’re a fan of that era, do not miss this show. Even if you’re only mildly fond of early rock, it’s still a really fun way to spend an evening.

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

 

ProductionMillion Dollar Quartet
Written byColin Escott & Floyd Mutrux
Directed byMichael Ray Wisely; Music Directed by Nick Kenrick
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse
Production DatesThrough March 24th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$40 – $48
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! Stunning “After Miss Julie” at Main Stage West – by Barry Willis

Trouble brews as a flighty heiress cavorts with her head servant in “After Miss Julie,” Patrick Marber’s adaptation of the August Strindberg classic, at Main Stage West through March 3.

Reset in an English country manor at the close of World War II, with the Labor Party about to win the national election and disrupt traditional social structures, the play features Jennifer Coté as Christine, a loyal scullery maid; Sam Coughlin as John, her fiancé and the manor’s head servant; and Ilana Niernberger as Miss Julie, the heiress who can’t resist defying class restrictions by seducing him. All the action plays out in the manor’s cramped downstairs kitchen, while a wild celebration swirls about outside.

Jointly directed by Elizabeth Craven and David Lear, who also did the set design, this brilliantly staged and performed piece is the antidote to the poison that is Strindberg’s much-praised “Creditors,” extended to March 3 at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company. Both plays were written in 1888, and both are about the power dynamic inherent in sexual triangles—strong superficial resemblances, but “After Miss Julie” actually has uplifting moments and an ambiguous ending that proves to be far more nuanced and far more satisfying than the abrupt finality of “Creditors.”

…a stunning, perfectly paced pas de deux… that will keep you on edge right to the end…”

Coughlin and Niernberger (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Coté is excellent in her role as the determined, hard-working Christine, while Coughlin and Niernberger are astounding in their portrayal of a pair of hopelessly attracted lovers deep in the throes of an intractable dominant/submissive relationship. Julie relishes lording it over John, issuing orders that as her lover and employee he must obey. She then immediately demands that he issue orders to her in return and he complies, despite knowing how wrong it all is. With class distinctions amplified by differences in dialect, it’s a stunning, perfectly paced pas de deux—quite literally, with white-hot choreography by Dana Seghesio—that will keep you on edge right to the end, and will give you plenty to ponder for days after.

Sound designer Matthew Eben Jones has selected some wonderful music from the WWII era that perfectly establishes the play’s time frame, and Missy Weaver’s moody subdued lighting works marvelously to reinforce every scene. Running time is about 90 minutes. Opening night featured a short intermission; it wasn’t clear if MSW would keep it or not for the duration of the show. In either case it’s a fantastically good production, among the best in a series of superb productions by Sebastopol’s quirky troupe. In its few short years, Main Stage West has become one of the North Bay’s leading theatre companies. “After Miss Julie” proves why.

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

 

ProductionAfter Miss Julie
Written byPatrick Marber
Directed byElizabeth Craven and David Lear
Producing CompanyMain Stage West
Production DatesThrough March 3rd
Production AddressMain Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472
Websitewww.mainstagewest.com
Telephone(707) 823-0177
Tickets$15 – $30
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK!Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATRE REVIEW: Unpleasant “Creditors” at Aurora Theatre Company – by Barry Willis

Nothing kills one’s ardor more quickly than hearing this from a partner: “We have to talk.”

That pretty much sums up this reviewer’s take on August Strindberg’s “Creditors,” at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre Company through February 24. Written in 1888, the then-scandalous play examines the relationships of two men, Adolph and Gustav (Joseph Patrick O’Malley and Jonathan Rhys Williams, respectively) and one woman, Tekla (Rebecca Dines). Adolph is a self-doubting artist with unspecified neurological problems that manifest in spastic mannerisms and ambulatory difficulties. Gustav is a new friend talking him through an artistic identity crisis—should he pursue painting or sculpture?—while  fanning the flames of doubt in him about his wife Tekla, who as we discover later, is Gustav’s ex-wife.

The initial exchange between the two men goes on for maybe twenty minutes—it feels like hours of manipulative psychobabble—until at some point Tekla appears, an independent, free-spirited novelist who has published a book with a central character based on Gustav. She’s been gone a week, approximately as long as Gustav has known Adolph, and has come back to flirt with her own husband while her ex lurks unseen to hear everything they say. There is nothing about the two men that is at all appealing—Adolph is a cringing neurotic and Gustav, a master schemer. It’s hard to imagine what attracts Tekla to either of them. It isn’t money, despite the play’s title.

…the actors are excellent playing despicable characters…”

Joseph Patrick O’Malley and Rebecca Dines

Tekla is the prototype of a new kind of woman emerging in Western culture at the time—assertive, confident, uninhibited. She can entertain the concept of loving more than one person while the two men cannot. (Strindberg must have thought his character was unique; he accused Henrik Ibsen of plagiarism in making Hedda Gabler a similar type. Certainly Tekla and Hedda cannot have been the only free-spirited women in fin de siècle Scandinavia.) Tekla flirts and spars with Adolph until he leaves in a huff, whereupon Gustav enters and attempts a seduction. Tekla almost takes the bait then thinks better of it, and to cut to the chase, Adolph comes back in and dies of an epileptic seizure. That’s a wrap.

In the week since it opened, “Creditors” has been gushed about by a score of critics, many of whom, it must be assumed, are classicists. And while it’s always unfair to judge the art of the past through the lens of the present, it’s nearly impossible to see what’s so gush-worthy. The story is horrible, but directed by Barbara Damashek, the actors are excellent playing despicable characters—two men suffering from terminal cases of emotional hemorrhoids, and a woman who can’t be trusted. It’s ninety minutes of late 19th century European navel-gazing, a repellent talkathon in which almost nothing happens other than the malicious destruction of the weakest character.

The fact that something is old doesn’t make it valuable or worth reviving. As David Foster Wallace put it in another context, this play is “a supposedly fun thing I will never do again.”

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

 

ProductionCreditors
Written byAugust Strindberg
Directed byBarbara Damashek
Producing CompanyAurora Theatre Co.
Production DatesThrough February 24th
Production AddressAurora Theatre Co.
2081 Addison St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
Websitewww.auroratheatre.org
Telephone(510) 843-4822
Tickets$49
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall3/5
Performance4/5
Script2/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?-----

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! A Solid “Streetcar Named Desire” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

Tennessee Williams’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” is among the most popular recurring productions in regional theater, with a couple of bucket-list roles for ambitious actors: the loutish Stanley Kowalski and his wilting-flower sister-in-law Blanche DuBois. The current revival of this favorite play runs in the studio theater at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa through February 17.

Directed by Phoebe Moyer, Ariel Zuckerman and Juliet Noonan do justice to these difficult parts, aided by superb supporting performances from Melissa Claire as Blanche’s pregnant sister Stella, and Edward McCloud as Mitch, Stanley’s bowling-and-poker pal who falls under Blanche’s spell. With a consistently bland mid-south accent and palpable emotional tenderness, Claire is rock-solid as the long-suffering sister, moving from joy at being reunited with Blanche to despair at having to get her removed from the cramped flat she shares with Stanley. McCloud also has a complicated path to traverse as Stanley’s army buddy who asserts himself enough to pursue Blanche, only to have his hopes dashed by plausible tales about her scandalous behavior back in Laurel, Mississippi.

…compelling heat—just right for a cold February night.”

Zuckerman and Noonan (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

Zuckerman apparently relishes his part as the savage Stanley, and in many scenes seems to be channeling Marlon Brando, whose portrayal of Stanley in the film version has forever affected those who followed. Zuckerman even looks like the young Brando, and some of his postures are eerily like the film actor’s. He’s also in great athletic shape, much more impressive than Brando in his youth.

Juliet Noonan has the unenviable task of carrying the bulk of the drama—like Martha in Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Blanche DuBois is among the most demanding roles in 20th century American theater, perhaps the female equivalent of Hamlet, and Noonan gets it about ninety percent right. Her physical gestures are evocative, and her timing excellent, but she falls in and out of her Mississippi plantation accent. With moments of true pathos, she beautifully conveys Blanche’s self-delusion and persistent manipulation of those around her.

Matt Farrell and Laura Downing-Lee are very good as Steve and Eunice, who live upstairs from Stella and Stanley and provide Stella with comfort when Stanley rages. A full-size spiral staircase leads to their unseen apartment, an amazing bit of set design in 6th Street’s compact studio theater. While not the best production this reviewer has seen, this “Streetcar” generates plenty of compelling heat—just right for a cold February night.

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

 

ProductionA Streetcar Named Desire
Written byTennessee Williams
Directed byPhoebe Moyer
Producing Company6th Street Playhouse, Studio Theatre
Production DatesThrough February 17th
Production Address6th Street Playhouse
Studio Theatre
52 W. 6th Street
Santa Rosa, CA 95401
Websitehttp://www.6thstreetplayhouse.com
Telephone (707) 523-4185
Tickets$18 – $28
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft3.5/5
Aisle Seat Review PICK?Yes!

AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW PICK! “Sex with Strangers” Turns Up the Heat at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

How do you define success, and what would you sacrifice to achieve it? Would you be willing to take advantage of others? To trade in your dignity, your privacy, or even your identity? Would you dare to risk a shot at love?

Pondering the price of fame in the digital era, “Sex with Strangers” is the smart, seductive modern romance by Emmy Award-winning House of Cards writer Laura Eason, playing now through February 17th at Santa Rosa’s Left Edge Theatre.

Olivia (Sandra Ish) has faded into obscurity following the long-ago release of her modestly successful novel. Badly bruised by mixed reviews and fearing public scrutiny, she continues to write but shares her work with no one. Now in her late thirties, Olivia has settled for a teaching job and relegated writing to a hobby.

Ethan (Dean Linnard) is an up-and-coming writer who, at only 28, has already made a splash on the New York Times Best Seller list and amassed a sizeable following online. Having leveraged his controversial blog about casual sex into two books and an impending movie deal, Ethan’s fame and fortune are on an upward trajectory. Even so, he is restless to escape his reputation as philandering lothario and rebrand himself as a serious author.

Linnard and Ish (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

When a snowstorm leaves these strangers stranded and alone at a remote bed-and-breakfast, sparks fly as flirtatious tension escalates into a passionate affair. But we soon learn their chance encounter wasn’t chance at all, and when Ethan offers to help relaunch Olivia’s career, there is ample room to doubt his motives. Olivia, we learn, has ambitions of her own, and we are left to question who is using whom. Or could this be a genuine connection?

…a steamy, entertaining story full of laugh-out-loud moments…”

Anticipation is half the fun, and the opening scenes are butterfly-inducing as heat and momentum build between Olivia and Ethan. Their banter appears unrehearsed – the pair’s interactions feel alluringly natural, raw, and resultantly real. Eason’s dialogue is sharp and delightfully fast-paced, and these two pros deliver it with ease.

Linnard’s Ethan is irresistibly charming. His coarse manners and frank confidence are at once repulsive and magnetic. There’s a sweet sincerity in his affection for Olivia that helps sustain our hope in the honesty of his intentions, despite the reasons we are given to suspect he can’t be trusted. Ish is equally excellent as voluptuous Olivia, bringing a compelling blend of vulnerability, sass, and surprising strength to the role.

Ish and Linnard (Photo Credit: Eric Chazankin)

The unlikelihood of their pairing makes their romance all the more interesting to watch unfold. What might have been a modest age difference in decades past is now a significant gap made ever broader by the rapid technological advancements we’ve seen in the last twenty years. Ethan’s Wi-Fi dependent world is ruled by an ever-ringing cell phone, overflowing email inbox, and constant public exposure. Olivia’s world – at least when we first meet her – is significantly more quiet. She’s still a fan, after all, of things like privacy and hard copy books.

A subtle power shift occurs as Olivia’s star begins to rise and Ethan’s fades, culminating in a simple, striking moment when the scene is interrupted by a ringing phone. We expect to see Ethan reach into his pocket. But this time, much to our surprise, the call is for Olivia. (Kudos to Sound Designer Joe Winkler for this and other well-timed effects.)

Eason’s ending is powerful and poignant, leaving the door open for us to reflect on what we hope will happen after the curtain falls. We are at once indulged but also wanting more.

Under Diane Bailey’s direction, Linnard and Ish hit it out of the park. Light Designer April George creates a convincing blizzard outside the opening scene’s window, and Argo Thompson’s set provides an attractive and believable backdrop, converting cleanly from a cozy bed-and-breakfast to an urban apartment.

“Sex with Strangers” is a steamy, entertaining story full of laugh-out-loud moments and plenty of food for serious thought. Leave the kids at home, check your inhibitions at the door, and strap in for a night of fun you won’t regret the morning after.

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

 

ProductionSex with Strangers
Written byLaura Eason
Directed byDiane Bailey
Producing CompanyLeft Edge Theatre
Production DatesThrough February 17th
Production AddressLuther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Rd. Santa Rosa, CA 95403
Websitewww.leftedgetheatre.com
Telephone(707) 546-3600
Tickets$25-$40
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4.5/5
Performance4.5/5
Script4.5/5
Stagecraft4/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?Yes!

An ASR Theater Review! “The Tasting Room” Hilarious at Lucky Penny – by Barry Willis

 The owners of a down-on-its-luck family winery panic while awaiting the appearance of a feared critic in “The Tasting Room,” at Napa’s Lucky Penny Productions through August 12.

Taylor Bartolucci and Danielle DeBow star as sisters Rebecca and Emily Lusch (“loosh”), proprietors of the Lusch Family Winery, a fictional establishment in the Napa Valley. Their lackadaisical morning routine is interrupted by the appearance of Sid Taylor (Michael Scott Wells), a scout for a publication called “The Wine Fanatic,” home of dreaded curmudgeon Elbert Fleeman (Michael TRoss), a critic who has consistently underrated Lusch products and may have some secret knowledge about the winery’s history.

Playwright and director Barry Martin is confidently understated as cynical salesman and “wine educator” Tony Spicolli, and Tim Setzer has a brilliant cameo as a wine-country tourist trying to cover the entire valley in a few short days. Drawing on plot elements from sources as diverse as “Rattatouie,” “Waiting for Guffman,” and “Bottle Shock,” the show is a quick-paced farce in which almost everything that can go wrong does go wrong. All the action plays out in a simply-conceived natural wood tasting room (set design also by Martin), with little need for set or prop changes.

‘The Tasting Room’ … works perfectly as a stand-alone show.

Bartolucci has the lion’s share of funny lines, most delivered with inebriated weariness—as in her dismissal of the tourist as “a guy who probably does a podcast out of his cellar.” DeBow plays it mostly straight as her strictly-business sibling, as does Ross, who comes in late in the second act to taste randomized samples. Martin has a lot of fun exploiting his character’s dislike for customers, punctuated by frequent trips to the bathroom, a result of gastronomic indiscretion. Michael Scott Wells portrays Sid Taylor as a cringing nebbish who lives in his boss’s shadow, and has surprisingly little interest in wine. He is, however, very interested in Emily, and this secondary plot helps lift the production in spots where the primary plot sags. There isn’t much of that, and this show largely sails along brilliantly.

“The Tasting Room” has room for refinement and the addition of other characters and plot elements—it’s very much like an energetic pilot episode for a promising sitcom, but works perfectly as a stand-alone show. With frequent moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity, it’s a wine country insider production with appeal broad enough for everyone.

 

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

 

 

ProductionThe Tasting Room
Written byBarry Martin
Directed byBarry Martin
Producing CompanyLucky Penny Productions
Production DatesThrough August 12th
Production AddressLucky Penny Community Arts Center
1758 Industrial Way
Napa, CA 94558
Websitewww.luckypennynapa.com
Telephone(707) 266-6305
Tickets$22-$32
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Overall4/5
Performance4/5
Script3.5/5
Stagecraft3/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----

An ASR Theater Review! Amazing, Wonderful “Walk on the Moon” at ACT – by Barry Willis

“A Walk on the Moon” at ACT

1969 was a pivotal year in the United States. The Vietnam War was approaching its peak, as was opposition to it at home. The civil rights and women’s movements grew more intense by the week. In late July, the first astronaut walked on the moon, and shortly thereafter a half-million music fans showed up at a farm near Woodstock, NY, for what would be the defining cultural moment of the decade.

All of this figures into “A Walk on the Moon,” at ACT through July 1. It’s a beguiling tale of a Jewish housewife’s late-in-life coming of age through an accidental encounter with a hippie peddler. Katie Brayben stars as Pearl Kantrowitz, a young mother from Flatbush, whose family traditionally spends a few idyllic summer weeks at a resort in the Catskills with friends and neighbors, all of whom, save Pearl’s rebellious adolescent daughter Alison (Brigid O’Brien), are still very much in the 1950s.

Marty and Pearl – Jonah Platt and Katie Brayben in “A Walk on the Moon” at ACT

Pearl’s TV-repairman husband Marty (Jonah Platt) can’t stay with them as much as he would prefer because business is booming at the repair shop where he works , in anticipation of the moon landing. Pearl spends idle moments hanging out with Walker (Zak Resnick), a local free spirit who sells blouses out of his camper van. Their friendship blossoms and culminates in a psychedelic adventure during the music festival, mirroring a less-intense affair that Alison has with a charming guitar-playing boy named Ross (Nick Sacks).

The story covers a short period in social history but a huge episode in Pearl’s life. She was, as she describes it, almost a child bride—one who went from high school to motherhood with no developmental period in between. Walker, and the ideas he shares with her, are Pearl’s forbidden fruit, and like Eve in Genesis Chapter 3, her eyes are opened.

Pearl and Walker – Katie Brayben and Zak Resnick at ACT

The verdant setting of the “bungalow colony” feels almost like Eden as realized by scenic designer Donyale Werle, and Tal Yarden’s astoundingly immersive projections go a long way toward encompassing the heady events of the late 1960s. Stagecraft at ACT is almost always beyond reproach, but this production is among the company’s most spectacular. It’s absolutely gorgeous.

“A Walk on the Moon’ is a flawless, must-see production.

Developed by Pamela Gray from the 1990s movie of the same name, “A Walk on the Moon” beautifully evokes a period whose effects still resonate almost fifty years later. The music by Paul Scott Goodman, with additional lyrics by Gray, gets the ‘60s feel just right while sounding totally contemporary. The entire cast is superb but Brayben takes her performance completely over the moon (sorry) with all-consuming dramatic conviction, fantastic dancing, and stunning vocals. It’s one of the most complete and fully engaged performances you’re likely to see this year.

“A Walk on the Moon” is a flawless, must-see production. Its only drawback is that it isn’t running all summer.

 

ASR Theater Section Editor and Senior Writer: Barry Willis

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

 

 

 

“A Walk on the Moon” by Pamela Gray; Music by Paul Scott Goodman; Directed by Sheryl Kaller

Through July 1: Tuesday– Saturday, 8 p.m.; Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday, 2 p.m.

American Conservatory Theater  Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco, CA

Tickets: $15 – $110

Info: 415-749-2228, act-sf.org

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

An ASR Theater Review! Adventurous “Good. Better. Best. Bested.” at Custom Made Theatre – by Nicole Singley

“Good. Better. Best. Bested.” at Custom Made Theater

It’s a normal night of gambling and drunken debauchery on the Las Vegas strip until a catastrophic event half a world away sends shockwaves rippling through the crowded streets of Nevada’s most infamous and alluring destination.

Jonathan Spector’s elaborately-woven satire – at Custom Made Theatre through July 7th – crashes the party and bears witness to the aftermath in a series of revealing vignettes. Making its world premiere at this intimate San Francisco venue, “Good. Better. Best. Bested.” is co-produced by Custom Made Theatre Co. and Spector’s own Berkeley-based company, Just Theater.

From magicians, prostitutes, gamblers, and bachelorette parties to costume-clad street performers and obnoxious, selfie-snapping tourists, this 90-minute, nonstop show darts back and forth between characters and storylines offering glimpses into the lives of recognizable Las Vegas fixtures. We watch their night unfold in the wake of devastating news, following along as they struggle to process and react to an unexpected buzz-kill of epic proportions. Can the party continue amid the chaos and confusion, or will doom and gloom prevail?

Jessica Lea Risco delivers a strong and nuanced performance as hired escort Simone, holed up uncomfortably in a hotel room with nervous would-be customer Alan (Gabriel Montoya) when the bad news hits.

Gabriel Montoya and Jessica Lea Risco at Custom Made.

Lauren Andrei Garcia shines as ditzy drama-queen Sue, determined to salvage her bachelorette festivities by any means possible. Tim Garcia nails an impressive, lightning-paced monologue riddled with more casino-friendly terminology than a copy of Gambling for Dummies. He is excellent as frenetic 17-year-old Sheldon, keeping his broke father Walter (David Sinaiko) afloat with handouts from his winnings.

Mick Mize is equally capable in dual roles as disenchanted stage magician Jordan and an inebriated, skirt-chasing tourist (“The Bro”) evoking blurry memories of frat-house parties past. Millie Brooks provides comic relief as Sue’s beleaguered best friend Marla, along for the wild ride whether she likes it or not.

Millie Brooks and Mick Mize at Custom Made.

Director Lauren English succeeds beautifully in bringing the humor and humanity of Spector’s script to life. A less talented group of actors may have made it difficult to see the same faces assuming so many roles, but the cast switches gears seamlessly and convincingly, making it surprisingly easy to forget that the drunken playboy hitting on our hapless bride-to-be was a magician only moments earlier. Noteworthy sound design by Jaren Feeley adds much to the overall production quality, with the well-timed entrances of voices swelling in the background and cellphone sound effects so realistic that members of the audience were seen reaching to check their own devices.

It’s an entertaining, fast-moving, emotional roller coaster of a production, shifting effectively between episodes eliciting side-splitting laughter, serious reflection, shock, and horror, all punctuated by an uneasy sense of sadness and despair that looms over even some of the most awkward and laugh-out-loud moments in this multi-dimensional comedy.

Spector has crafted his characters with empathy and depth, exploiting their flaws when it suits his purpose, but not at the expense of making them both relatable and compelling. “Good. Better. Best. Bested.” is a thought-provoking journey into the heart of Sin City and humankind at large, underlining the fragility of the ever-fleeting here and now.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

 

 

 

“Good. Better. Best. Bested.” by Jonathan Spector

Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter St, San Francisco, CA 94102

Through July 7, 2018

Tickets: $35—$42

Info: (415) 798-2682, custommade.org

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

 

ASR Theater Review! Enjoyable “Jeeves Intervenes” at Sonoma Arts Live – by Nicole Singley

“Jeeves Intervenes” at Sonoma Arts Live

Adapted from the stories of popular 20th-century humorist P.G. Wodehouse, “Jeeves Intervenes” brings lovable playboy Bertie Wooster and his ever-sensible manservant to the stage for new adventures in London’s 1920s haut monde. Paying homage to Wodehouse’s keen ability for satire, Margaret Raether’s script takes comedic aim at England’s strait-laced elite, weaving an entertaining web of elaborate scheming, pretense, and old-fashioned farce. The Sonoma Arts Live production, playing now through May 27th, is good for a few big laughs and an evening of light-hearted fare.

Bertie (Delaney Brummé) enjoys a life of leisurely bachelorhood, relying on his aunt’s financial support and loyal valet Jeeves (the excellent Randy St. Jean) to keep him out of constant trouble. When domineering Aunt Agatha (Jennie Brick) comes to town with plans to pressure Bertie into marriage, it’s up to quick-thinking Jeeves to rescue his charge from the unwanted union with up-and-coming socialite Gertie (Libby Oberlin).

Meanwhile, Bertie’s old school mate Eustace, aka “Bassy” (Nick Moore), is dreading the arrival of a disapproving uncle who intends to ship him off to a job in India. Having never worked a day in his life – and desperately hoping to change his overbearing benefactor’s mind – Bassy must convince Sir Rupert (Larry Williams) that he’s built a suitable life for himself in London. (Spoiler alert: he hasn’t.)

Can blundering Bassy escape a life of labor abroad without lifting a finger or losing his allowance? Is our steadfast bachelor doomed to go through life as the unpalatable “Bertie and Gertie?” Cue the shenanigans and enter Jeeves to save the day. Deception multiplies, new love blossoms, sparks fly, and old flames reignite as our clever hero works his magic behind the scenes.

St. Jean carries the show with his levelheaded demeanor, reserved sarcasm, and efficacious intonation. He is the picture of a proper gentleman’s gentleman, charming the audience with his dry wit and subtle, all-knowing expressions. Moore’s Bassy is marked by an appropriate air of highfalutin laziness and clumsy tomfoolery, which earns some laughs and helps to sell his character. Oberlin is a good fit for debutante Gertie, with a winning smile and youthful exuberance well suited to the task of whipping wayward young men into matrimonial shape.

“Jeeves Intervenes”

Brick and Williams are competent in their roles, though more believable as meddling relatives than former paramours. A lack of chemistry lessens the excitement we want to feel for their romance. Brummé’s otherwise able performance is regrettably overshadowed by a jarring vocal gimmick, which oversteps the boundary between funny and obnoxious and, at times, obscures the actor’s lines. Cracking into a shrill pitch with awkward regularity, his delivery feels more appropriate for a pubescent schoolboy than a suave womanizer in high society. It’s an unfortunate distraction from Raether’s witty dialogue, but the physicality of the comedy is often enough to overcome any confusion about what’s happening on-stage.

The production is enhanced by Carl Jordan’s colorful set and Moira McGovern’s period-appropriate musical selections. Eric Jackson’s costumes are mostly a hit, though Gertie’s outfits often (and perhaps deliberately) upstage the other characters’.

Despite its faults, the show evokes a pleasant nostalgia for eras past with its slapstick humor and whimsical characters. The mischief concludes with the satisfaction of a happy ending, all thanks, of course, to the intervention of our hero.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

“Jeeves Intervenes” by Margaret Raether, adapted from the works of P.G. Wodehouse

Sonoma Arts Live

Rotary Stage in Andrews Hall at the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E Napa St, Sonoma, CA 95476

Through May 27, 2018

Tickets: $22—$37

Info: 866-710-8942, www.sonomaartslive.org

Rating: Three out of Five Stars

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@

 

ASR Theater Review! Incisive, Hilarious “Entomologist’s Love Story” at SF Playhouse – by Barry Willis

SF Playhouse: An Entomologist’s Love Story

“Neoteny” is a scientific term for the persistence of immature characteristics in mature organisms: adult dogs with the look and behavior of puppies, for example. By extension, it could be applied to a large swath of the thirty-something population, many of whom seem to have reached their limit of social development in middle school.

It’s also a strong sub-theme in “An Entomologist’s Love Story,” at San Francisco Playhouse through June 23. Expertly directed by Giovanna Sardelli, Melissa Ross’s tight, insightful script examines the relationship of Betty and Jeff (Lori Prince and Lucas Verbrugghe), two doctoral candidates who work together in the entomology department of the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

SF Playhouse: Lucas Verbrugghe and Lori Prince

Briefly lovers during their undergrad days, the two now enjoy a playful relationship like teenage brother and sister. Their nerdy banter is the source of much of Ross’s comedy—much of it true-to-life proof that “thirty is the new thirteen.” Betty is an expert on the mating behaviors of insects—the play is bracketed by her lectures on the subject—but is obsessed with the mating behaviors of humans, an activity with which she has had much experience but no longterm success. She clings to Jeff, who clearly wants to move on, but doesn’t know how.

Lindsay (Jessica Lynn Carroll, right) shows an insect specimen to Jeff (Lucas Verbrugghe).

Then one day he meets Lindsay (Jessica Lynn Carroll), a young woman geekier by far than he and Betty combined, and soon he knows she’s the girl for him. How to break away from Betty is his challenge, and dealing with that is hers. Then life throws her a curve ball in the form of an intellectual janitor named Andy (Will Springhorn, Jr.), who’s attended her lectures and has read “War and Peace” in its entirety.

It’s a spare, beautifully structured plot without a hint of fluff. Every line and every action propel the story toward its lovely uplifting conclusion, all of it conveyed on a spectacular set—both interior and exterior of the museum—by Nina Ball, one of the Bay Area’s most gifted and adventurous set designers. This show’s scientific setting and dissection of the personal lives of realistic scientists make it an excellent follow-up to “The Effect,” with its theme of love and research. And love-among-the-nerds makes it a superb companion piece to “Tinderella,” running through May 26 at Custom Made Theatre, in SF Playhouse’s former home on Sutter Street. Hilarious and hopeful, “An Entomologist’s Love Story” is a sweet antidote for what ails us.

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

 

“An Entomologist’s Love Story”

San Francisco Playhouse

Through June 23, 2018

420 Post Street, San Francisco

(Second floor of the Kensington Hotel)

Tickets: $30-$100 Info: www.sfplayhouse.org

Rating: 4 1/2 Out of Five Stars

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@

 

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

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@

 

ASR Theater Review! “Tinderella” Delights at Custom Made Theatre Co. – by Nicole Singley

Tinderella: Tinder Creeps

What if Cinderella were alive today, resigned to searching for her kale-munching, kombucha-swilling, flannel shirt-donning prince on an Internet dating app, adrift in a sea of creepy stalkers and unsolicited ‘dick pics?’

Running through May 26th at San Francisco’s Custom Made Theatre Co., modern musical “Tinderella” puts a wildly entertaining spin on an age-old classic, thrusting our beloved Disney princess into the harsh realities of 21st-century online dating. FaultLine Theater has partnered with Custom Made for the world premiere of a brilliant show three years in the making, attracting a remarkably young, enthusiastic audience with a story acutely relevant to millennials and Bay Area living, and poking plenty of fun at our newfound reliance on all things digital. (Boomers, be warned – some generational references may be lost in translation.)

Tinderella: Dylan & Meg

Once upon a time, (shortly after the release of the iPhone 5, but before the release of the iPhone 5C, we’re told), our princess Meg (Juliana Lustenader) naively yearns for the fairy-tale romance she grew up believing she was destined for. Her ordinary life feels inadequate when measured against the glamorous Facebook facades of her social media-savvy stepsisters, whose virtual personas exude the confidence and fulfillment Meg aspires to. But when gay fairy-god-roommate Dylan (the magnificent Branden Noel Thomas) introduces her to popular dating app Tinder, it seems as though her luck may be about to change. “If you’re straight, hot, and white,” he tells her, “Tinder is like magic, (more or less).”

Tinderella: Julie & Marcus

Meanwhile, in couples’ land, Julie (the exquisite Sarah Jiang) and Marcus (Jackson Thea) are at a crossroads. Marcus wants to settle down with Julie, move to Texas, buy a dog, and crank out a couple of kids. Julie, on the other hand, wants… well, she doesn’t exactly know yet, but she’s pretty sure it isn’t that. She urges him to take a step back and explore other options. Marcus does just that, inviting his new Tinder match Meg to a “super cool party” at his San Francisco apartment. Full of hope, Meg sets out to meet her prince, win his heart, and catch the last BART train back to Oakland before midnight. But in a world where success is measured in “likes” and love is found by “swiping right,” all bets for a happy ending are off.

The cellphone-toting ensemble is well balanced and superbly gifted, and vocal talent abounds. Thomas is dynamic, empathetic, and often hilarious as quesadilla-making, tough-loving Dylan, with a powerful voice and a flair for delivery. In lead roles, Thea and Lustenader are both convincing and cute and remain lovable despite lapses of self-centered blindness.

Tinderella: Selfies with Stepsisters

Adielyn Mendoza and Alex Akin are well cast as New York fashionista Allie and world-traveling, do-gooder Tanya (Meg’s not-so-evil stepsisters). Their excellent voices, though regrettably underutilized, are put to good use in “Picture Perfect” and “Reality Check,” calling out our obsession with ‘selfies’ and the false images of perfection we project online.

Jiang shines in a standout performance as undecided Julie, questioning whether she’s in the best place she can be (“The Best Place”) and ultimately helping lead us to one of the night’s most insightful revelations – that we are all sometimes guilty of forcing others to play a role in our own stories. It takes courage to shed our misguided fairy-tale notions and break free from the pressure to conform. “I’m not giving up on my dreams,” Julie explains to Marcus, “but I’m giving up on yours.” Jiang’s beautiful voice only accentuates her knack for acting and reacting to the other cast members throughout the show.

The production is punctuated by riotous, foot-tapping musical numbers like “Old School Chivalry,” “Slow Grind Love Song,” and “(You’re Gonna) F***ing Rock It.” Weston Scott’s lyrics are funny and sharp, pairing perfectly with Christian B. Schmidt’s hip, vibrant score. Meredith Joelle Charlson’s choreography adds much to the tear-inducing hilarity of lighter-hearted acts. The more solemn, introspective pieces are lovely, too, spotlighting some of the incredible voices on stage.

“Tinderella” is the sexy, hilarious, and highly enjoyable triumph of an immensely talented cast and creative team. You, too, may fall in love at first swipe.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

“Tinderella: The Modern Musical” by Rose Oser, Christian B. Schmidt, and Weston Scott, in partnership with FaultLine Theater

Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter St, San Francisco, CA 94102

Through May 26, 2018

Tickets: $25—$49

Info: (415) 798-2682, custommade.org

Recommended for mature audiences

Rating: Five out of Five Stars

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@

 

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 Theater Review! Classic Musical Comedy: “La Cage aux Folles” at 6th Street Playhouse – by Barry Willis

 

La Cage aux Folles at 6th Street

 

Santa Rosa’s 6th Street Playhouse has revived the ever-popular classic musical comedy “La Cage aux Folles,” at the G.K. Hardt Theatre through May 20.

A Harvey Fierstein/Jerry Herman collaboration, this engaging piece about a nontraditional French Riviera family confronting a hyper-traditional one was a long-running Broadway hit, and has made the rounds of regional theater companies ever since. The story of a gay male couple—one a drag performer, the other the owner of the drag club—and their straight son, it was made into two hit movies, and was the basis for the more recent “The Legend of Georgia McBride,” set in Florida’s Gulf Coast, known to Southerners as “the Redneck Riviera.”

In the original, the couple must pretend to be straight in order to please their son’s future father-in-law, an ultraconservative reformist politician. Potential disaster for this politician ensues if he is found cavorting with “degenerates;” comedy issues forth as it often does when characters must unwillingly pretend to be other than what they are.

The show feels in some ways as quaintly innocent as the French romantic comedy “Boeing Boeing.” It’s no longer as outrageous as it was when it debuted, but its core issues make it still current. 6th Street’s production features Michael Conte as drag star “Zaza” and Anthony Martinez as nightclub owner Georges—both of them excellent, with Conte the standout as the petulant gender-bent performer. Lorenzo Alviso does a nice turn as their son Jean-Michel, and choreographer Joseph Favalora is a scream as their houseboy/housemaid Jacob. Michael Fontaine is very good as the reformist politician Dindon, whose election campaign is based on sweeping the Riviera clean of people like Zaza and Georges. Mo McElroy is solid in a cameo as restaurant owner Jacqueline, whose scheming could be Dindon’s undoing.

The show is anchored by a great band “in the pit” helmed by music director Ginger Beavers, and a team of flamboyant showgirls—not all of them organic—called “Les Cagelles.” Most forbidding among them is “Hanna from Hamburg” a whip-cracking redhead with the muscularity of an Olympic wrestler. A show that usually benefits from a lush set design, “La Cage” moves along briskly with an unusual minimalist set by Sam Transleau. It’s a fun outing that should be on the must-see list for North Bay theater fans.

 

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

 

“La Cage aux Folles”

Directed by Russell Kaltschmidt

6th Street Playhouse

G.K. Hardt Theatre

52 W. 6th Street Santa Rosa, CA 95401

Tickets: $22 – $38

Info: 707- 523-4185, www.6thstreetplayhouse.com

Rating:  Four out of Five Stars.

 

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@

 

ASR Theater Review! Loose Cannon — ACT’s “Father Comes Home from the Wars” – by Barry Willis

A great old joke has it that “a camel is a horse designed by committee.” The same might be said about Civil War epic “Father Comes Home from the Wars,” directed by Liz Diamond, at American Conservatory Theater through May 20.

The committee in question is playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, an artist so deeply in love with her own voice that she can’t figure out what material fits and what needs to be jettisoned. She includes it all, like William Faulkner delivering to his editor his magnum opus in a wheelbarrow.

Unlike Faulkner, Parks didn’t have a ruthless editor to shape her material into something compelling. She instead offers a sprawling amalgam of history and personal quest that attempts to be both drama and comedy but ultimately succeeds as neither. The story at its core is quite simple: a slave named Hero (James Udom, superb) elects to serve as valet to his “boss master,” a Confederate colonel (Dan Hiatt) who has answered the call of duty and is headed to the war. Hero wonders if he should go or not, to the point of almost cutting off his own foot to render himself unfit, a fate that has already befallen his friend Homer (Julian Elijah Martinez). He’s also reluctant to say goodbye to his love Penny (Eboni Flowers) and other members of his community, but the lure of adventure, the intoxication of wearing a uniform, and the promise of freedom at the end of his servitude overwhelm his better judgment and off he goes. There are mentions of Hero’s dog Odyssey, who has run off, but we never see him.

James Udom

“Father Comes Home” follows a traditional three-act structure, with enough characters and plot devices to fill a two-season PBS series. In the first act, we meet Hero and other members of his community, their shabby housing represented by the rusty façade of a corrugated metal shack. (Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez.) This introduction, itself introduced by a mellifluous guitar-playing musician (Martin Luther McCoy, excellent), consumes the better part of an hour and segues directly into Act II, which finds Hero, the Colonel, and a wounded-and-captured Union soldier (Tom Pecinka) camped out in a forest within earshot of battle but safely away from it, the damage of war and the forest where they’re hiding represented by huge upended I-beams, more 1945 Berlin than 1865 Appomattox.

The Colonel preens, drinks, and rants, and during lulls in encroaching cannon fire, the three of them engage in a free-wheeling discussion of personal and social freedom, identity, status, value, ownership, man, god, law, and destiny. This act is exceptionally well done by three skilled actors and were it fully fleshed out might prove to be a satisfying resolution to the questions raised in Act I. Or not—the playwright might have her characters ask these questions and leave them for the audience to ponder.

Act III opens with the rusty shack superimposed on the remnants of war, with three runaway slaves cowering on its porch. Over the hill comes what appears to be a crazy homeless person in a wooly bathrobe, flitting about, flipping his hair and gushing about the fates of Hero and the Colonel. A new character introduced in the last act—Parks clearly disregards the laws of drama here—and one who had many in the opening night audience mumbling “WTF?” This crazy homeless person proves to be Odyssey, Hero’s missing dog, who has followed his master, at a distance, to the war and back and has come home to tell the tale. He’s comic relief, like the gravedigger in “Hamlet.”

Greg Wallace

A talking dog. We are now solidly in Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit territory.

Odyssey (ACT veteran Gregory Wallace) spins an elaborate tale, provoking many laughs, and informs the community that Hero isn’t dead as they believed, but in fact survived and is coming home. And Hero does just that, arriving with gifts for Homer and Penny, and a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that he has copied by hand but never reads aloud. Their reunion is warm and reassuring until Hero lashes out wildly with his knife, slashing at the runaways, his friend Homer, and everyone near him. There is neither justification nor explanation for this outburst. Then he calms down to tell Penny that he has a wife on the way, and it isn’t her. The end, more or less.

Its stagecraft is very good, but “Father Comes Home” is lengthy (three hours), ponderous, and baffling. Parks has worked historical facts into fantasies that never fully take flight. Hero’s journey is an arduous one, especially for the audience, some of whom left at intermission. That may have made for a more fulfilling evening at the theater.

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

 

“Father Comes Home from the Wars” by Suzan-Lori Parks

Directed by Liz Diamond

American Conservatory Theater

Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street San Francisco

Tickets: $15 – $110 Info: www.act-sf.org

Rating: Three out of Five Stars

 

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@

ASR Theater Review! Refreshing “Water by the Spoonful” at Raven Performing Arts Theater – by Nicole Singley

Playing through May 13th at Healdsburg’s Raven Performing Arts Theater, Pulitzer Prize-winning “Water by the Spoonful” is a complex and heartfelt exploration of poor choices and personal trauma, the difficult road to recovery, and the unlikely lifelines that help keep us afloat.

Elliot (Bill Garcia) is an Iraq War veteran and aspiring actor, reduced to making Subway sandwiches while caring for the ailing aunt who raised him. Carrying the scars of a troubled childhood and his time in Iraq, he is haunted by agonizing guilt, devastating loss, and the grudge he harbors against his mother. We gather shocking pieces of his past throughout the show. Garcia is believable as Elliot, and his energy is complemented by the talented Serena Elize Flores as cousin Yazmin.

Elliot’s mother Odessa (played effectively by Athena Gundlach) is a recovering crack addict who runs an Internet chat room for others battling addiction. “Haikumom,” as she’s known online, devotes the majority of her time to helping chat-room regulars “Orangutan” (Hande Gokbas) and “Chutes&Ladders” (Nicholas James Augusta) in their daily struggles to stay clean. Though largely isolated from her family and the outside world, Odessa finds redeeming purpose and connection in her virtual haven. But when Elliot comes home to confront the skeletons in his family’s closet, her fragile peace is threatened.

The performers are capable and well cast, and a few scenes into opening night, began to really find their groove. Matt Farrell feels natural in the role of self-centered chat-room newcomer “Fountainhead,” slowly coming to terms with the truth of his addiction. Gokbas is endearing as “Orangutan,” her passion and determination to move forward a much-needed boon to “Chutes&Ladders” as he wrestles with the fear of shaking up his safe routine. The evolution of their relationship from virtual to actual is both moving and uplifting.

A minimalistic set puts our focus on the actors and leaves much to the imagination. Clever projections illuminate to indicate when chat room members are online. The venue adds a fitting element of openness and vulnerability, enhancing the show’s emotional impact without keeping the audience at too great a distance.

Quiara Alegría Hudes has written a story about broken people, and the humanity with which she’s brought each character to life is evident under Steven David Martin’s compassionate direction. While the ending she has given us is not exactly happy, it is hopeful.

“Water by the Spoonful” challenges us to find the courage to face our own demons and the strength to do better. Redemption and atonement, it suggests, are made possible by the powers of forgiveness and human connection.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

“Water by the Spoonful” by Quiara Alegría Hudes

Raven Performing Arts Theater, 15 North St, Healdsburg, CA 95448

Through May 13, 2018

Tickets: $10-$25

Info: (707) 433-6335, www.raventheater.org

Recommended for mature audiences

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

@@@@@     @@@@@     @@@@@

 

Aisle Seat Review! Keeping Up with “The Realistic Joneses” at Left Edge Theatre – by Nicole Singley

The Realistic Joneses, at Left Edge Theatre through March 25th, offers a hilarious and heart-wrenching glimpse into the lives of two couples who share an ordinary last name and an extraordinary fate.

The show opens on Bob (Chris Schloemp) and Jennifer (played ably by the talented Melissa Claire) sitting together in their back yard. Jennifer is struggling to make conversation with her reticent husband when neighborhood newcomers John and Pony barge in with a bottle of wine, eager to make an introduction. The exchange becomes only more strained as awkward small talk strays into the gravely personal.

As the couples’ lives begin to intertwine, unlikely connections form between the characters as they seek solace in each other’s spouses. What unfolds is a darkly comic exploration of the bonds between those who are unable or unwilling to confront life’s biggest hurdles, and those who are left alone to face them.

Chris Ginesi delivers a compelling and nuanced performance as John, eliciting plenty of laughter along the way and a few surprising tears in a heartbreaking revelation to Jennifer. Paige Picard shines as ditzy Pony, who we are not sure whether to pity, adore or detest. And we cannot decide whether to laugh or cringe at Bob’s giddy and bumbling advances toward his new neighbor’s wife. Jennifer acts as the story’s anchor, evoking as much compassion as she offers to her cohorts. At every turn, the cast excels and their chemistry is palpable.

Food for thought about marriage, mortality, coping mechanisms, and human connection, this cleverly written show makes for a highly entertaining and uncomfortable 90 minutes – rife with laughter – that will stay with theatergoers long after the curtain closes.

Nicole Singley is a Contributor to Aisle Seat Review.

 

“The Realistic Joneses” by Will Eno

Through March 25, 2018

Left Edge Theatre, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403

Tickets: $25 – $40

Info: 707-536-1620, www.leftedgetheatre.com

Rating: 4 out of 5 Stars

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

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

 

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

 

ASR Theater Review! Main Stage West’s Compelling “Blackbird” – by Barry Willis

You can’t escape your past.  In David Harrower’s “Blackbird,” an industrial production manager named Ray (John Shillington) discovers this late one day when a young woman named Una (Sharia Pierce) shows up unannounced at his workplace.

In their awkward protracted reunion we learn that she was his lover at the tender age of twelve, when he was approximately forty. A scandal consumed him and the town he lived in, to the extent that he vanished, changed his name, and tried to put it all behind him.

But perhaps by accident, now-adult Una has discovered his new identity and location and has driven hundreds of miles to try to resolve all that was left dangling—a massive shared bundle of guilt, shame, obsession, and still-smoldering attraction that bursts into flames at least once in their brief meeting. No resolution is possible, but the script and the two talented actors cover huge emotional territory in the eighty minutes they spend together in the grimy confines of a disheveled break room (set design by David Lear, who also directed).

Intentionally stilted exposition makes the plot a bit slow to roll out, but once it does, it gains unstoppable momentum. Pierce and Shillington give a fiercely passionate performance of two people linked by irresistible but doomed attraction, frightening in its depth but illuminated by moments of levity. “Blackbird’s” dark realism will startle you and give you plenty to think about when you’ve left the theater.

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

 

“Blackbird” by David Harrower

Through April 7th

Main Stage West  104 North Main Street  Sebastopol, CA 95472

Tickets: $15-$30 Info: 707-823-0177

Contact@mainstagewest.com

Rating: Three-and-a-half Stars

 

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

 

ASR Theater Review! Exuberant Romp — “Mystery of Edwin Drood” from Marin Onstage – by Barry Willis

At San Rafael’s Belrose Theatre through March 31 and directed by Patrick Nims, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” is an exuberant romp of a musical. Based on an unfinished novel by Charles Dickens, the show features eleven performers, all but two of them women, and approximately two dozen clever songs, all written by Rupert Holmes (of “The Pina Colada Song” fame), who also authored the book, lyrics, and musical arrangements.

Set in England in 1870, the complicated story—really too complicated to follow closely—involves the disappearance of Drood (Madison Scarborough), a dastardly act perhaps attributable to his romantic rival John Jasper (Andre Amarotico, excellent). The culprit may just as easily be any one of multiple characters who mingle with the audience before the show officially begins. That’s the mystery, and as the show progresses plenty of hints get dropped about which one may be the guilty party, so that the audience can vote near the end.

There are supposedly multiple endings written and rehearsed for each potential outcome, but it’s also possible that time constraints dictate a fixed outcome. In either case, the show sails along quickly and the audience has a jolly time participating. It’s very much “murder mystery dinner theater” without the dinner.

The women playing most of the characters are members of the fictional Music Hall Royale, “a ladies’ theatrical society,” we are frequently reminded by the Royale’s Chairman, played brilliantly but understatedly by Jill Wagoner. Their characters are mostly men—hence the onstage prevalence of 19th century male drag—but not all: one of the most feminine is also one of the most untrustworthy, Princess Puffer (Paula Gianetti at her over-the-top best), an opium dealer and on opening night, winner of the most votes as the likely murderess. The approximately two dozen songs that propel the show are energetically and engagingly performed (music direction by Daniel Savio, choreography by Kate Kenyon) even if they aren’t very memorable.

Set designer Gary Gonser worked his tail off to create a versatile quick-change environment and a batch of sight gags that function perfectly in the small space of the Belrose. Wagoner, as mentioned, is brilliant, and her castmates aren’t far behind. A young talent worth watching is Jack Covert as Master Nick Cricker, Jr., who introduces the show and here and there helps kick it along. Covert is an eighth grader with already formidable theatrical skills and one who will go far in the business if he sticks with it.

“Drood,” as it is usually called in theatrical circles, is a ludicrous lighthearted romp with much to recommend it. Put your serious business on hold and have fun at the theater.

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

 

“The Mystery of Edwin Drood” by Marin Onstage

The Belrose Theatre, 1415 5th Avenue, San Rafael, through March 31.

Tickets: $12-$27

Info: 415-290-1433 www.marinonstage.com

Rating: Three-and-a-half-stars

 

***** ***** ***** ***** ***** 

 

ASR Theater Review! Quirky, Charming “Tenderly” at Napa’s Lucky Penny — by Barry Willis

Pop singer and sometimes actress Rosemary Clooney was among an endless procession of performers and celebrities with a complex of personal and professional problems (depression, marital discord, drug addiction) exacerbated by changing public tastes, waning popularity, and financial distress. Her career spanned the post-WWII era into the late 1960s, and resumed in the late 1970s when she reinvented herself as a jazz vocalist and nostalgia act.

Directed by Dyan McBride, “Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical,” at Lucky Penny Productions in Napa through March 11, picks up her story at the moment in 1968 when after a breakdown she reluctantly goes under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Victor Monke (Barry Martin). How she got there—from her origin in a small Kentucky town to international fame as a Hollywood icon with a series of unreliable high-profile husbands—is told in flashback, punctuated with very good performances of her most popular songs, such as “Hey There,” “I Remember You,” “Mambo Italiano,” “Sway,” and the show’s title song, backed by a solid instrumental trio led by Music Director Craig Burdette.

Lucky Penny Artistic Director Taylor Bartolucci gives a spirited portrayal of Clooney, masking her character’s ambition with a disarming amount of small-town self-disparagement. Bartolucci the actress nails the accent, attitude, and mannerisms while Bartolucci the singer does likewise with the songs’ melodies and phrasing, even though her irrepressible and totally enjoyable vibrato makes her singing only an approximation of Clooney’s.

The company’s Managing Director Barry Martin is excellent as the understanding but gently persistent Dr. Monke. Martin takes on multiple roles with only small changes in prop or costume, including Clooney’s mother, sister, and brother; her twice-husband Jose Ferrer, Frank Sinatra, and Bing Crosby. His mellifluous baritone is especially suited to the Crosby bit, and he employs it beautifully in a duet with Bartolucci.

The elegant compact set serves as medical office/hospital, the Clooney home, and several performance venues, with changes mostly provided by April George’s lighting. This combined with Martin’s instant morphing from one character to another keeps “Tenderly” moving along briskly. The show is especially appealing for fans from Clooney’s era but should also prove entertaining for younger ones eager to learn more about her. Best of all, it ends on an uplifting note with the late-career Clooney in full command of her life both onstage and off. Be thankful she didn’t take a desperate early exit the way so many have.

ASR Senior Editor Barry Willis is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle. Contact: barry.m.willis@gmail.com.

 “Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical”

Through March 11, 2018

Lucky Penny Productions

Community Arts Center, 1758 Industrial Way, Napa, CA 94558

Info: www.luckypennynapa.com, 707-266-6305

 

Rating: Three-and-a-half-stars

 

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

 

ASR Theater Review! Supremely Good “Disgraced” at Left Edge Theater — by Barry Willis

A celebratory dinner party goes horribly awry in Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced,” at Left Edge Theatre in Santa Rosa, through February 18. In it, ostensibly upscale intelligent people provoke each other just enough to reveal ancient ethnic hatreds lurking just beneath the veneer of civility.

The controversial script won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Tightly directed by Phoebe Moyer, who in her director’s notes mentions having felt “uncomfortable, frightened, and ultimately moved,” when she first read it, the play explores interconnected contemporary issues of, as Moyer puts it, “religion, capitalism, tribalism, race, tradition, infidelity, loyalty, politics, and the role of the artist” with amazing efficiency thanks to Akhtar’s authorial elegance and the cast’s tremendous ensemble work.

Ilana Niernberger stars as Emily, an artist whose work has begun to appropriate Islamic imagery. Her partner Amir (Jared N. Wright) is a hard-working lawyer seeking to make partner in his law firm, but held back by the Indian/Pakistani ethnicity he has long tried to minimize. Amir’s nephew (Adrian Causor) has gone so far in rejecting his Islamic roots that he’s legally changed his name to “Abe Jensen,” explaining to his uncle that by doing so he has almost completely eliminated feeling any sort of discrimination. Mike Shaeffer plays a self-important art curator named Isaac, planning a big exhibit of artists exploring various spiritual traditions. Jory (Jazmine Pierce), his young wife or girlfriend—it’s not clear which—is a lawyer in Amir’s firm, a fact that late in the play drives home the final nail in the coffin of Amir’s professional aspirations.

A bubbling cauldron of complex relationships and thorny issues, “Disgraced” is one of the most dynamic and relevant plays to appear in the North Bay in many months. There is not a moment or gesture wasted in its quick-moving ninety minutes. The acting is as stunning as the script is provocative. The whole affair will leave you gasping for breath at its sheer intellectual and artistic intensity.

“Disgraced” is one of the most compelling scripts to come along in a very long time. The Left Edge production is its perfect realization. Don’t be surprised, if days later, you’re still pondering what it plants in you. That’s the intent of the playwright, director, and cast, and they all succeed beautifully.

 

Barry Willis is a Senior Editor/Writer for Aisle Seat Review, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA) and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC).

 

 

Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced”

Through February 18, 2018

Left Edge Theatre, Luther Burbank Center for the Arts

50 Mark West Springs Road Santa Rosa CA 95403

www.leftedgetheatre.com

707-546-3600

Rating: Five out of five stars. 

 

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

 

ASR Theater Review! ‘Cops and Robbers’ is Must See Theater — by Kris Neely

Cops and Robbers is an important piece of theater. As presented at The Marsh in Berkeley, CA, it is also raw, honest, and powerful, demanding more than just passive viewing. This is theater that challenges the audience, regardless of ethnicity, to honestly assess their perceptions—and assumptions—on race in America.

In Cops and Robbers, Mr. Jinho Ferreira plays 17 wildly different roles including a self-centered news reporter, a black activist, an amazingly comic white conservative talk show host, a judge, and a hyped-up police department sergeant. The plot of this 90-minute, one-man theater piece turns on the now all-too-familiar topic of an officer-involved shooting, with the host of characters morphing in and out of the show to tell the story from each person’s perspective.

To be fair, the production needs some minor editing/tightening, more consistent lighting, better microphone management, and a re-designed opening video montage that better engages the audience.

Yet, it is a damned important piece of theater, well rendered by an actor/playwright focused on asking essential questions through his writing, storytelling, and acting.

This reviewer left The Marsh not just liking, not merely appreciating, but actively respecting Mr. Ferreira and his work as a playwright and as an actor.

Each character in Cops and Robbers is the personification of an ethical viewpoint the playwright encountered growing up in West Oakland, CA. Mr. Ferreira’s insightful writing and bravura performance, goes where few American theater productions go by asking the audience a single, powerful, pervasive question: what will you do with your new knowledge, awareness, and insider view of topics many of us prefer to hear about in sanitized sound bites—if we want to hear about them at all.

This play takes on difficult topics—black-on-black crime, police officers’ use of force, American politics, the power of social media—and shows the audience how the people in these societal factions often do not speak the same language, value the same things, or make much of an effort to understand one another.  Mr. Ferreira is trying to drill down to the essence—not the stereotypes or popular perceptions—of those who live on these cultural islands, which are informed by ideology, pride, power (real and imagined), tradition, money, influence, and pain.

Typically, a play review discusses what the production is about. I believe in this case it is equally important to discuss what this play and performance is not.

It is not:

  • a politically-driven rant
  • a Black Power endorsement wrapped in the lights, costumes, and imagery of the stage.
  • an indictment of the power structure (whatever you deem that to be)
  • anti-white or anti-black
  • pro-black or pro-white
  • a classically-trained actor exploiting the onslaught of shooting and police-in-the-news stories
  • dumbed-down

Mr. Ferreira endeavors to go beyond right/wrong, white/black, yes/no and stereotypes to lead the audience beyond themselves to a new level of understanding; to see reality as it is and not as we think it is, or would like it to be.

This reviewer places lots of value on craft. As an actor, I applaud his work. As a writer, I’m amazed at the subtlety of his script. As a director, it would be an honor to work with a talent as powerful and singular as Jinho Ferreira. As an audience member who has experienced Mr. Ferreira’s craft and heard the messages of his play, my take-away—my responsibility—is to spread the word of this singular achievement.

If you like theater that supplies pat answers, this is not your show. If you like theater that asks you to think, that asks you to examine your perceptions, that urges and inspires you to act and be part of the solution then this is your show.

Cops and Robbers is that rarest of experiences: essential and important theater.

 

Cops and Robbers:

Directed by Ami Zins and Lew Levinson.

Written by Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira. A graduate of San Francisco State University, Ferreira, who describes himself as a self-taught actor and playwright, is also a musician, singer, father of three, and Alameda County Sherriff’s Deputy.

Mature content: appropriate for ages 15+.

Runs SATURDAY AFTERNOONS ONLY at 5:00 p.m. through October 3, 2015; dark on 9/19/15 at The Marsh Theater, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA.

Tickets available online at www.themarsh.org or by phone at 415.282.3055 1:00-4:00 p.m. Mon-Fri

Run time: 90 minutes with one intermission.

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

 

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

 

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

 

ASR Technical Review! ‘Cops and Robbers’ is Solid Theater — by Team ASR

Note: These commentaries are primarily focused on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

Cops and Robbers is an important piece of theater. As presented at The Marsh in Berkeley, CA, it is also raw, honest, and powerful, demanding more than just passive viewing. This is theater that challenges the audience, regardless of ethnicity, to honestly assess their perceptions—and assumptions—on race in America.

In Cops and Robbers, Mr. Jinho Ferreira plays 17 wildly different roles including a self-centered news reporter, a black activist, an amazingly comic white conservative talk show host, a judge, and a hyped-up police department sergeant. The plot of this 90-minute, one-man theater piece turns on the now all-too-familiar topic of an officer-involved shooting, with the host of characters morphing in and out of the show to tell the story from each person’s perspective, a modern twist on Kurasawa’s classic Rashomon.

This reviewer left The Marsh not just liking, not merely appreciating, but actively respecting Mr. Ferreira and his work as a playwright and as an actor.

Each character in Cops and Robbers is the personification of an ethical viewpoint the playwright encountered growing up in West Oakland, CA. Mr. Ferreira’s insightful writing and bravura performance, goes where few American theater productions go by asking the audience a single, powerful, pervasive question: what will you do with your new knowledge, awareness, and insider view of topics many of us prefer to hear about in sanitized sound bites—if we want to hear about them at all.

This play takes on difficult topics—black-on-black crime, police officers’ use of force, American politics, the power of social media—and shows the audience how the people in these societal factions often do not speak the same language, value the same things, or make much of an effort to understand one another.  Mr. Ferreira is trying to drill down to the essence—not the stereotypes or popular perceptions—of those who live on these cultural islands, which are informed by ideology, pride, power (real and imagined), tradition, money, influence, and pain.

If you like theater that supplies pat answers, this is not your show. If you like theater that asks you to think, that asks you to examine your perceptions, that urges and inspires you to act and be part of the solution then this is your show.

Cops and Robbers is that rarest of experiences: essential and important theater.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

The set for this show is a black stage and black curtain backdrop, and the lone prop a hard-backed chair positioned center stage right. The program begins with an opening montage of video clips.

The content of this script and the acting combined with effective sound effects, conveyed what a more over-thought set design would have obscured. That said, I’m giving this design a 7 out of 10 because it didn’t try to do more. (Score: 7/10)

Set Construction:

(Score: N/A)

Stage Management:

To the Stage Manager’s credit, the action behind the scenes was mostly smooth. A bit less time in blackout would have been better. Sound cues were on their mark. (Score: 8/10)

Sound:

Watch out for Mr. Ferreira’s microphone; it was over-driven, causing distortion at a couple points. Sound effects were very well chosen—unobtrusive and well delivered—supporting the action. (Score: 7.5/10)

Props:

In a one-person show with a blank stage, a wooden chair, sound effects, and one actor, the props department gets a well-deserved bye.  (Score: N/A.)

Costumes:

Mr. Ferreira’s costume was a basic black T-shirt and black, military-style cargo pants with black police boots. The simplicity of the costume worked well as the principal actor morphed from character to character. Again, not over-thinking these choices aided and supported the production. (Score: 7/10)

Direction:

Tightly directed for the most part. Pacing was good, a demanding task in a one-person show which makes the kinds of physical demands on an actor that this play does. A couple character transitions showed flashes of questionable acting choices. (Score: 7/10)

Lights:

The lights were uneven. On more than one occasion Mr. Ferreira was performing between lights in a dim zone. There was no indication that this was required by the script. This is not good anytime but especially for a one person show. (Score: 4/10)

Casting:

N/A as the playwright is the principal actor. (Score: N/A.)

Overall Production

A little more attention to sound management and light placement would add value. The video montage at the top of the program could be cut tighter to build towards the play opening rather than feeling a bit like a bolted-on attraction. A tiny bit of polish on the direction/acting choices in a couple character changes would add even more luster.   (Score: 8/10)

Reviewer Score:

This is an important piece of theater that is effectively rendered. People talk about how this-or-that theater production made them think. This program does that very, very well. Go see this show, and bring every friend and neighbor you can find. (Score: 8.5/10)

Overall Theater Tech Score: (57/80) Good work.

Cops and Robbers

Directed by Ami Zins and Lew Levinson.

Written by Jinho “The Piper” Ferreira. A graduate of San Francisco State University, Ferreira, who describes himself as a self-taught actor and playwright, is also a musician, singer, father of three, and Alameda County Sherriff’s Deputy.

Mature content: appropriate for ages 15+.

Runs SATURDAY AFTERNOONS ONLY at 5:00 p.m. through October 3, 2015; dark on 9/19/15. at The Marsh Theater, 2120 Allston Way, Berkeley, CA.

Tickets available online at http://www.themarsh.org or by phone at 415.282.3055 1:00-4:00 p.m. Mon-Fri

Run time: 90 minutes with one intermission.

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians,

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 Theater Review! Ubuntu Theater Has Smash with ‘Waiting for Lefty’ — by Kris Neely

Clifford Odets was one of the most skilled playwrights of 1930s American social protest. For those who can leave their political leanings at the coat check when entering the theater, his writing is spare, almost terse, and highly instructive of the period. His characters are powerful and symbolic without stooping to sentimentality or cliché. And his staging devices are imaginative yet simple without being simplistic. His works have a timelessness so they can be staged in many settings and styles without losing their impact. Mr. Odets’ plays are dramatic representations of blue collar life in the 1930 that are socially, historically, and dramatically authentic and important.

Born in Philadelphia in 1906, Odets grew-up in the Bronx, New York, the very definition of working-class America. Attracted to the theater, Mr. Odets joined the Group Theatre in 1931 where he wrote his six best and most famous plays: Golden BoyRocket to the MoonParadise LostAwake and Sing!Till the Day I Die, and the first play of Odets to be produced, Waiting for Lefty, arguably one of the most celebrated and significant plays of twentieth century American theatre. Mr. Odets’ dramatizations of the common workingman’s struggle in his time paved the way for the works of Arthur Miller, William Inge, and Tennessee Williams.

If you like your theater understated and enjoy teasing the significance, meaning, or connotation out of this-or-that character’s lines, then Odets is not your playwright, and Waiting for Lefty is not your play. This is politically left, workingman theater delivered with the sweet subtlety of brass knuckles driven by a large muscular man descending from his well-worn, roughly hewn soapbox.

The essence of Waiting for Lefty is that unions and collective bargaining are the only ways for the American workingman to gain any kind of footing against big business. Absent those tools, owners and their cronies can—and will—continually drive down wages and suppress the means necessary for these same workers to do a decent day’s work.  As a result, the working classes need to fight like junkyard dogs for their rights, particularly to unionize.

* * *

This production of Waiting for Lefty by the Ubuntu Theater Project (UTP), converts an actual Berkeley, CA, automobile body-and-fender repair shop into a theatre space. Directors Emile Whelan and Michael S. Moran stayed true to Odets stage direction by having actors mixed-in among the audience, seated on crates around the make-shift stage—an open circle of stained concrete floor. The staging— grounded in the rigid industrial sights, unexpected smells, and hard-edged sonic envelope of the environment—raised the sensory impact of this production a notch or two.

The lighting design by Stephanie Anne Johnson was as unflinching as the grey concrete stage: hard, almost industrial lighting illuminated the actors clearly while adding stark shadows and sharply-defined profiles, which were not lost on the acting talent.

Costuming, by Luther Spratt, was pretty close to period for the most part. Costuming also represents the aspect of the production with which this reviewer was least satisfied. Working men’s clothes should look like working men’s clothes: wrinkled, sweat stained, maybe soiled. Also, when the cast is singing about not having visibility to their next hot meal, their clothes should map to that message. This material requires that the audience be able to see, simply by looking at the costumes, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. That message was muddled in this production.

The casting was uniformly good. The production felt the slightest bit under-rehearsed and some of the acting choices could have been better considered. Hopefully these rough edges will smooth out as the run progresses. Also, the actors felt a little unsure about using pauses to let the text/plot breathe a little. The result, while accompanied by solid skill to be sure, was a tad too rushed and lacked the tentativeness and hesitancy with which people approach real conversation, especially when tough, unsparing topics are on the table.

Stage management was tight with snappy entrances, cues, and exits. The acoustics of the garage setting paid a premium to those actors who enunciated well.

Props were appropriate to the message and the set design, as it were, was spare, solid, and simple: a single wooden chair, a large wooden cable spool, and a wrench for a gavel. The effect, like the play itself, was industrial and hard-edged.

* * *

Overall, I liked UTP’s version of Waiting for Lefty, and recommended it as an SFBATCC “Go See” production.  Looking at the production as a whole—the text of the play, the messages within it, the energy and craft of the acting team, and the care taken by the creative team—Waiting for Lefty is a solid production of an important period piece of American history.

Go see it!

 

Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets, directed by Emile Whelan and Michael S. Moran runs through September 12, 2015 at Classic Cars West, 411 26th St. Oakland CA 94612.

Tickets are available online at http://www.ubuntutheaterproject.com

Run time: 45 minutes with no intermission.

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

***

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

 

 

 

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

 

ASR Technical Review! Ubuntu Theater Project Totally Nails ‘Waiting for Lefty’ — by Team ASR

Note: These commentaries are primarily focused on the production, direction, and technical aspects of theater and performing arts.

Clifford Odets was arguably one of the most skilled playwrights of 1930s American social protest. His writing is spare, almost terse, and highly instructive of the period. His characters are powerful and symbolic without stooping to sentimentality or cliché. And his staging devices are imaginative yet simple without being simplistic. His works have a timelessness so they can be staged in many settings and styles without losing their impact. This production of Waiting for Lefty by the Ubuntu Theater Project (UTP), converts an actual Berkeley, CA, automobile body-and-fender repair shop into a theatre space where directors Emile Whelan and Michael S. Moran present the drama as a series of seven vignettes, separated by blackouts.

If you like your theater understated and enjoy teasing the significance, meaning, or connotation out of this-or-that character’s lines, then Odets is not your playwright, and Waiting for Lefty is not your play. This is politically left, workingman theater delivered with the sweet subtlety of brass knuckles driven by a large muscular man descending from his well-worn, roughly hewn soapbox.

The essence of Waiting for Lefty is that unions and collective bargaining are the only ways for the American workingman to gain any kind of footing against big business. Absent those tools, owners and their cronies can—and will—continually drive down wages and suppress the means necessary for these same workers to do a decent day’s work.  As a result, the working classes need to fight like junkyard dogs for their rights, particularly to unionize.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

The choice of the automobile repair shop as a theater was an inspired choice. The hard, stained gray concrete floors; the roughhewn lumber ceiling and supports; parked cars from a variety of decades; garage acoustics; and the smells of rubber, oil, and grease made for a potent backdrop to this production. The setting made the audience feel as if they’d been invited to observe a secret meeting of workingmen to discuss unionization. The set design within the garage was also spare, solid, and simple: a single wooden chair, a large wooden cable spool, and wooden crates.   (Score: 9/10)

Set Construction:

The playing area was a rough circle of concrete surrounded by wooden benches and crates for audience seating. In essence the play was presented in the round, with entrances and exits through aisles between the audiences’ seating. No score for this category. (Score: N/A)

Stage Management:

Tight, timely, and effective.  JJ Hersh’s efforts were well executed. (Score: 8/10)

Sound:          

Acoustics were interesting given that cavernous space, and the number of cars parked just outside the playing area. No score for this category. (Score: N/A)

Props:

Props were appropriate to the message and the set design: spare and simple—a wrench for a gavel; a straight-back, wooden chair; an empty, rough-hewn cable spool acting as a desk; a table; and a podium. The effect, like the play itself, was industrial and hard-edged.

The actors mimed using a camera to take some pictures. We know cameras of that period not by their click but by their flash; even something a subtle as that can cause the audience to lose engagement.

On another note, when an actor hands another actor money, especially when audience members are three or four feet away from the action, real money should be used and the denomination should represent the action. So if an actor is handing someone sixty-five cents, they should hand the actor sixty-five cents and not just a random selection of coins. The same hold true for folding money. While the folding money may not necessarily be period to the production, it detracts from the truth of the show for both audience and actors when obviously fake money is used in a production. Worst of all are those productions that skip the money prop all together and just have the actor mime they are handing another actor money. These are the details that elevate a production above the pedestrian level and crown superior productions.   (Score: 7/10).

Costumes:

While the costuming, by Luther Spratt, was close to period for the most part, it was the aspect of the production that was least satisfactory.

  • Workingmen’s clothes should look like workingmen’s clothes: wrinkled, sweat stained, maybe soiled.
  • One of the male actors was wearing a contemporary watch.
  • Shoes on workingmen should not be shined but should show their labor heritage.
  • In the SF Bay Area, gaining access to either Goodwill coats for purchase—or even for loan—or access to the costume departments of other theater companies should preclude coats whose sleeves are too short, as occurred on one actor in this production.
  • The dress of a working-class housewife whose furniture has just been repossessed should look the part. This actresses’ dress was too upmarket, too fancy. Images like this cause the audience to disengage to one degree or another while they think: That dress isn’t right. Again, with reference to accessibility of costume resources in the Bay Area, no production should trade those audience reality points if at all possible.
  • No executive of this period would be caught dead without a tie.

Also, when the cast is singing about not having visibility to their next hot meal, their clothes should map to that message. This material requires that the audience be able to see, simply by looking at the costumes, which are the good guys and which are the bad guys. That message was muddled in this production. (Score: 5.5/10)

Direction:

UTP’s Waiting for Lefty is on the whole competently directed by Emile Whelan and Michael S. Moran.

That said, the acting has a bit of a rushed call-and-response feel—they aren’t talking to each other, just trading lines. The connection between the characters needs work. Also, overall delivery from almost all actors felt to linear and unmodulated.

In addition, the overall timing/pacing of the show felt a bit rushed, which was especially unnecessary given the play’s 45-minute run time. The characters in this play are thinking deep thoughts about complex and potentially dangerous, even life threatening, topics, and their dialog should have the hesitations and pauses such situations command. Even if the playwright didn’t indicate pauses, the material and situation(s) of this play command them.

On another note, when someone writes a brief message to someone, an actor should be directed to make the appropriate amount of effort to actually write the message. (Score: 6.5/10)

Lights:

Stephanie Anne Johnson’s lighting design was simple yet effective: hard, industrial lighting that illuminated the actors clearly if unflinchingly and added stark shadows and sharply-defined profiles, which were not lost on the acting talent. (Score: 7/10)

Casting:

The casting was uniformly good. (Score: 8/10)

Overall Production:

Overall, I liked UTP’s version of Waiting for Lefty, and recommended it as an SFBATCC Go See production. True, as noted here, there are some areas that need fine-tuning. But this is quality material from a playwright who knows his craft, delivered with a level of commitment to quality not always apparent.

Reviewer Score:

Looking at the production as a whole—the text of the play, the messages within it, the energy and craft of the acting team, and the care taken by the creative team—tells the tale: Waiting for Lefty by the Ubuntu Theater Project is a solid production of an important period piece of American history.

Go see it! (Score: 8/10)

Overall Theater Tech Score: (66/90) Good work.

Waiting for Lefty by Clifford Odets

Directed by Emile Whelan and Michael S. Moran at Ubuntu Theater Project.  Runs through September 12, 2015 at Classic Cars West, 411 26th St. Oakland CA 94612.

Tickets available online at http://www.ubuntutheaterproject.com

Run time: 45 minutes with no intermission.

 

Team ASR is composed of a selection of writers, directors, actor, musicians,

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 Theater Review! Theater Rhinoceros Powers Turing Bio — by Kris Neely

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 gay.

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. In a series of well-executed scenes, the play guides us through Mr. Turing’s life from stumbling adolescent to resigned victim of repressive laws as an adult. 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 of Breaking 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.

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.

The set by Jon Wai-keung Lowe is ingeniously simple and forms a perfect backdrop for the events of Mr. Turing’s life. Inserting doors into the blackboards stage left and right was a clever staging choice.

John Fisher’s props are spare but period proper and well rendered.

Lara Rempel’s costume choices were first-rate, period proper, and well rendered. Period hose on the ladies was a nice detail.

Jon Wai-keung Lowe and Sean Keehan’s lighting design was subtle and largely unobtrusive.

Colin Johnson’s sound effects were generally good.

From an acting perspective, Mr. Fisher was simply outstanding. New or seasoned students acting students should buy tickets to study a true 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 professional 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.

As produced by Theatre Rhinoceros  and expertly directed by John Fisher, Breaking theCode is thoughtful, taut, often funny, touching, heartfelt, and skillfully rendered. 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.

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

Run time: 2:10 with one intermission.

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

Rating: Four out of Five Stars

ALSO AVAILABLE…

Script available here. 

Audio Theater Edition available here.

Masterpiece Theater version available here.

Book available here.

Tickets available here at: http://www.therhino.org/buy.htm

***

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

ASR Technical Review! ‘Company’ Rocks at SF Playhouse — by Team ASR

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

SF Playhouse has learned a secret uncovered by few community and regional theaters: big musicals in the June 1 to Sept. 1 timeframe can make serious money. Especially in tourist destination cities or areas.

Raising a vodka gimlet to toast their own obvious success with this secret (as witnessed by the near sell-out audience last Saturday night), SF Playhouse’s production of Company, by Stephen Sondheim and George Furth, went down as smooth as a cocktail and left many patrons with a satisfied glow as a result.

Company is not your typical all-singing-all-dancing musical. In fact, there’s little enough dancing in the show—this is a musical with the emphasis on the music and the singing.Company is not a sort of A-to-Z straight-line plot, either. The show is composed of a variety of scenes that taken as a whole tell our tale.

The scenes/music/singing all revolve around the dating/marriage/commitment/relationships of one newly 35-year-old man named Bobby, played with almost detached studied aplomb by Keith Pinto. A perpetual bachelor and bon vivant, Bobby, and his married friends, are celebrating his birthday; that, in essence, is the storyline.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

The set design by Bill English and Jacquelyn Scott is elegant on many levels because the set is built on, you guessed it, many levels. The scenic rear projections as designed by Micah Stieglitz add a powerful theatrical touch to the proceedings. (Score: 8/10)

Set Construction:

In a word: quality. A well constructed, well thought-out set. No extraneous architecture—nothing that didn’t need to be there was there. (Score: 8/10)

Stage Management:

As rendered by Tatjana Genser, the stage management was tight with sound and light cues snappily in place.  (Score: 8/10)

Sound:

The sound design by Anton Hedman works well. (Score: 7/10)

Props:

The props design is fine—what props need to be in place are in place, work well, and underscore scenes nicely. (Score: 7/10)

Costumes:

Costume design by Shannon Sigman takes full marks—elegant, well designed, and nicely rendered. All the actors looked darn good in Sigman’s work. (Score: 8/10)

Direction:

As directed by SF Playhouse co-founder Susi Damilano, Company is well blocked with excellent stage pictures rendered on the multiple layers of the stage. This adds complexity to the directorial process because it’s easier to watch/direct actors at the same time on a single level plane versus actors scattered liberally from stage left to stage right and upstage to downstage.

Blocking takes on aspects of choreography in many plays (both musical and non-musical), and Damilano handled movement well. My only nudge would be that cue pick-ups could be quicker, brisker, and the same nudge for scene transitions—a bit faster might have added even more audience energy to the proceedings. (Score: 8/10)

Musical Direction:

Company eschews the full orchestration and electric guitars of most productions, relying instead on two pianos, located stage left and stage right. Music Director Dave Dobrusky hosts one of these pianos and surely conducts his musical charges. The effect of this two-piano strategy is more personal, less grandiose than a full or even partial orchestra. That said, at times it felt a bit like the cast was fighting the sound envelope of the pianos. (Score: 6/10)

Lights:

The lighting design by Michael Oesch in and of itself works well. (Score: 8/10)

NOTE: But I have significant reservation about a couple of architectural lighting issues. The house right and house left tormentor lights spill too much light into the audience area. The same is true of the lights high, upstage center. The light spillage was very distracting and detracted from the quality of what was happening onstage.

Casting:

The casting was a bit uneven. Disappointing, as the majority of the cast ranged from good to superb.  (Score: 7/10)

Overall Production:

As presented by SF Playhouse, Company gives general audiences and those of us inside theater a solid example of taking a musical from some years back and making it modern, energetic, and appealing to a contemporary audience.

The acting of Monique Hafen made this show for me. Her stellar history with SF Playhouse is now the stuff of regional theater legend. Soon, I have little doubt, it will be the stuff of Broadway legend as well. (Score: 8.5/10)

Reviewer Score:

SF Playhouse has demonstrated to everyone that they know how to rock musical theater. From awards won to sell-out nights, SF Playhouse knows musicals. Company continues that proud heritage.

The quality of SF Playhouse musical productions should be a beacon to technical theater artists as well as actors across the US, and, indeed, globally. (Score: 8.5/10)

Overall Score: (92/120) Extremely good work.

 All in all, SF Playhouse’s Company is a fine night on the town.

 

Company continues through Sept. 12 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post St., San Francisco.

Tickets are $20-$120 (discounts available). Call 415-677-9596 or visit http://www.sfplayhouse.org.

 

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.

 

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

 

ASR Theater Review! Multi Ethnic Theater Does August Wilson Proud — by Kris Neely

There was an article in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks back reporting that there were more Tennessee Williams theater festivals and events sliding in between similar Shakespeare happenings than ever before. That’s a good thing, to be sure. Yet there is no doubt Mr. August Wilson will be joining those illustrious ranks soon.

Mr. Wilson exploded onto the American theater scene with critically acclaimed plays such as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, as well as Fences (1987 Tony Award, New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, Drama Desk Award, and the Pulitzer Prize) and The Piano Lesson (1990, Pulitzer Prize).

Mr. Wilson’s command of the black experience in twentieth-century America is second-to-none. His talent for shaping dialog is unquestioned. His characters are realistic, genuine, and thoughtfully rendered while his choice of language is exacting and considered. His plays, including this one, often deal with themes of community loyalty and commitment, to fair play and justice.

Two Trains Running is Mr. Wilson’s seventh effort in his ten-part series of plays entitled The Pittsburgh Cycle. The play was first produced by the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, and later opened on Broadway in the spring of 1992 at the Walter Kerr Theatre.

The play gives us a complex story based on the lives of ordinary people, a volatile turning point in American history. The location is Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the racially charged world of 1969. Mr. Memphis Lee’s threadbare cafe is a regular stop for neighborhood folks all trying to understand the cultural maelstrom of the late 1960s. The regulars do their best to come to an accommodation with the swirling tides of change, but not always with the results they intended.

As the play begins, the city block on which Mr. Memphis’s diner is located is due to be torn down in a city renovation project. One of Mr. Memphis’ regular customers is the rich undertaker whose business is located across the street from the diner. The undertaker urges Mr. Memphis to accept his offer to buy the cafe, but his price is unacceptable to the stoic Mr. Memphis. He’s been swindled out of property before and he’s determined to stand his ground this time and get what he thinks his property is worth.

Another regular to the café is Sterling, a petty ex-con just out of the penitentiary with big dreams for his future. Then there’s Wolf, a bookie, a hustler (in the survival sense of the word) and a man-about-town.  He dresses to the nine’s and is equally focused on the details of his own success.

Risa is the only female in the cast. A waitress of quiet dignity occupying the still point in this play, she has self-inflicted cuts on her legs, self-mutilation as a barrier between herself and men. Hambone is a mentally disturbed man who seeks comfort in the friendship shown him by Risa. He speaks infrequently but when he does, it’s one variation or another of the phrase, “He gonna give me my ham. I want my ham!”

The senior character in the play is Holloway. He has seen it all and his role is steady anchor, neighborhood philosopher, and ardent proponent of a legendary 322-year-old woman prophet down the street. Although never seen, she radiates a strong influence over the actions of many of the characters in the play, and serves as a reminder of the heritage of Black Americans.

With these strong roots, Mr. Wilson grows a powerful theatrical experience and a strong history lesson for those of us not witness to Black life in 1969.

As directed by Lewis Campbell with Esperanza Catubig assisting, and rendered by the Multi Ethnic Theater Company and presented in the Gough Street Playhouse in San Francisco, Two Trains Running ran 3 hours including one intermission. The running time is important, as slowness of pacing was an issue on opening night. This play requires pacing more like everyday life, with the dynamics of neighbors talking with neighbors they’ve known for years; that is to say briskly, sometimes obliquely, with awareness of personal quirks and hot buttons, and with every intent to find or deliver a message, a joke, a jab, or a cut. The actors cast in this production are certainly more than capable of doing this sort of work, but on opening night the presentation was too muted. (Note: It was extremely hot in the theater this night and I’m sure that had an impact on the actors. I know it did on the audience.)

Fabian Herd was superb as Wolf, Vernon Medearis a study in subtlety and nuance as West (the undertaker), and Stuart Elwyn Hall every bit the oracle of Black life as Holloway. All three actors demonstrated a keen ability to do what so many actors fail at: to listen to what is being said by other actors, instead of simply waiting for their turn to speak. These gentlemen delivered acting in considered gradations, rendering layered performances which would hold them in good stead with notable theaters across this country.

The set design, that of a scruffy café so much a part of neighborhoods everywhere, was nicely done. The turquoise booths were period perfect. Unpainted plywood here-and-there emphasized  a business managed with small dollars and ‘just enough’ repairs. Set construction showed care. Making a set look down-on-its-luck without making it look slapdash is harder than one might imagine. The set designer/builders (Lewis Campbell and David Hampton) pulled it off nicely.

Props were period and detailed. Even though no one in the play ate anything which required catsup, the always ubiquitous red plastic catsup dispenser appeared one-third full. The bowl of beans eaten by Hambone were appealing, as was the coffee dispensed by Risa.

Costumes were period and nicely selected (especially those for Wolf.) A bit more attention to fit would render some costumes perfect.

There is little doubt August Wilson has a ‘reserved seat’ in the pantheon of Greatest American Playwrights. Seeing Multi Ethnic Theater’s production of Two Trains Running shows why.

Two Trains Running continues through August 30th at the Gough Street Playhouse, 1620 Gough St, San Francisco, CA 94109.

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

Industry Commentary…

  • “Vivid and uplifting… pure poetry… remarkable!”—Time
  • “A symphonic composition with a rich lode of humanity running through it.”—Los Angeles Times
  • Winner of the New York Drama Critics Circle Best Play Award
  • “Vivid and uplifting… pure poetry… remarkable!”—Time
  • “A symphonic composition with a rich lode of humanity running through it.”—Los Angeles Times
  • “His language is golden: rich in humor and poetry and redolent of a colorful vernacular.”—Wall Street Journal
  • “Has an unassailable authenticity… a lot of life and a lot of humor… By the end, a small world has been utterly transformed.”—Variety
  • “These characters are fully imagined—they live… reeling out stories about their past, their angers, their dreams.”—Washington Post
  • “Wilson’s most adventurous and honest attempt to reveal the intimate nature of history… glorious storytelling… touching and often funny… a penetrating revelation of a world hidden from view.”—Frank Rich, The New York Times

Also Available…

Script available here. 

Script, Samuel French  available here.

Study Guide available here.

Paybill from Broadway run available here.

Discount Tickets are also available on Goldstar

Tickets are available on the theater’s website.

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

ASR Theater Review! Laugh-Out-Loud Performance at Marin Shakes — by Kris Neely

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, and standardize costumes. Direction was largely spot-on if a tad slow at times.

Visually, Ms. Currier kept the set design simple and even spare. Lighting and sound designs worked well, if hard as they often do in an outdoor setting. Costumes were well designed and carefully rendered. Pops and set pieces were thoughtful, spare, and effective.

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 — 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.

In all, a solid, well directed, new adaptation 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.

***

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

ASR Technical Review! Big David Mamet Results in a Small Theater — by Team ASR

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

Winner of the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Glengarry Glen Ross is David Mamet’s sizzling and gritty, claustrophobic play about a quartet of self-loathing real estate salesmen in Chicago during the mid-1980s. The 1992 film featured an all-star cast and was critically acclaimed. While there is much to be said about the art of live theatre, it would be wise to keep any comparisons to the film out of mind.

The title of the play (and the plot, really) is derived from the two real estate properties mentioned: Glengarry Highlands, a real estate development currently being sold, and Glen Ross Farms, a previous crème del le crème real estate development. A sales contest pits the salesmen against each other. Driven to desperation, they resort to manipulation, bribery and even burglary and theft to keep their jobs. The dog-eat-dog action that ensues is intense, laden with F-bombs, and brings with it all the intensity of life in a pressure cooker.

Mamet came to the public’s attention with plays including, American BuffaloSpeed the PlowOleanna, and Cryptogram. Considered a classic of 20th century theater, Glengarry Glen Ross shows Mr. Mamet at the top of his game – a key reason this play has become a regional theater staple.

So in a nutshell, how was the Shelton’s version of the show? The actors do a serviceable job with the dynamic script that’s full of rapid-fire dialogue, and the technical aspects largely delivered their intended results.

 

TECHNICAL SCORECARD

Scenic Design:

The set in the small footprint Shelton Theater were quite effective. A Chinese restaurant, the focus of the first few scenes of the production, boasted beautiful red upholstery and was accented with maple-stained wood trim.  With clean lines, the restaurant set was complemented by a simple black lacquer table and white curtains.  The real estate office’s white walls included a well-painted marble effect that transported the audience right into the twisted business.  Both sets leveraged the Shelton Theater’s size and geometry to good effect. The sets were designed, built, and painted by Matt Shelton and Adam Stowers. (Score: 8/10)

Set Construction:

The set was carefully built to capture the essence of the environments displayed. The resulting effect was more than your run-of-the-mill set—simple yet effective. The brown stair step leading from the street into the office struck a somewhat incongruous note. (Score: 7/10)

Stage Management:

To the credit of Stage Manager, Muriel Shattack, the action behind the scenes was smooth. The backstage crew controlled the on-stage chaos with near perfect set changes and actors made entrances promptly. Lighting and sound crews were on their mark and associated cues were tight. (Score: 8/10)

Sound:

Sound design was by Alex Boyd. At the outset, Mr. Boyd’s music and mood effects inside the Chinese restaurant worked well. In contrast, the sound effects and music underscoring the key set change were overwrought, taking the audience away from the moment. (Score: 5/10)

Props: 

An important facet of a strong production is the use of effective props. Shelton’s prop designer invoked realism with matching turquoise office chairs, harmonious dishes and tea set accessories, as well as a file cabinet full of…files. By-and-large, everything was in its proper place and presented a well thought-out design. One inconsistent note was a tea bag, seen floating in the bottom of a glass coffee pot. When an actor says something to the effect that he hasn’t had a cup of coffee all day and pours same from a glass coffee pot containing a floating tea bag clearly visible to the audience, the result is unimpressive.  (Score: 7/10)

Costumes:

Costumes were realistic, pressed/ironed as appropriate and well presented. Each slimy salesman wore immaculate, pressed suits fitting for the 1980s. Shoes were stylish and polished. Style/design elements were well considered and selected.  (Score: 8/10)

Direction:

Mamet challenges directors of every experience level. Director Sasha Litovchenko succeeds for the most part. Pacing was a tad uneven in spots. It also felt like a bit more work needed to be done on the acting choices made in some of the scenes, particularly in Act 1 Scene 1. Blocking and movement were satisfactory. (Score: 5/10)

Lights:

One of the greatest challenges of the space at Shelton Theater is its low hanging ceiling. Still, the lighting design by Colin Pope captured the essence of the script for the most part. The lights were hung evenly, but on more than one occasion actors were performing between lights, in a bit of a dim zone. (Score 6/10)

Casting:

Good casting, nice mix. The seasoned actors did a good job with the material. Mr. Shelton’s work in particular was outstanding. The Eastern European accent of one of the other actors was a bit thick at times. Philip Estrin avoids clichés and nails the role of down-but-not-quite-out Shelley Levene. Matt Crawford as Moss, looks straight out of Central Casting as the schemer who launches the idea of the salesmen robbing their own office. (Score: 8/10)

Overall Production:

The Shelton Theater’s production of Mamet is a solid presentation of a great American classic. Overall, Shelton paid better-than-average attention to the technical aspects of the theater. (Score: 7/10)

Reviewer Score:

Shelton Theater’s iteration of Glengarry Glen Ross works incredibly hard to sell the intent and intensity of Mr. Mamet’s work. For the small audience on Friday night, Shelton largely delivered the goods. If you like drama, go see this solid take on an American classic. (Score: 7/10)

Overall Score: (75/110) Good work.

Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet plays through August 29th.

Tickets are $25-$50 (with discounts available) and are available online at http://www.sheltontheater.org or by calling 415.882.9100.

Show times and Place: Thursday – Saturday 8:00 pm.  Box Office and Bar open at 7:00 pm. The Shelton Theater is located at 533 Sutter St. between Powell and Mason, in San Francisco.

 

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 Theater Review! Shelton Theater’s ‘GGR’ Closes the Deal! — by Kris Neely

Winner of the 1984 Pulitzer Prize for drama, Glengarry Glen Ross is David Mamet’s sizzling and gritty, claustrophobic play about a quartet of self-loathing real estate salesmen in Chicago during the mid-1980s. The 1992 film featured an all-star cast and was critically acclaimed. While there is much to be said about the art of live theatre, it would be wise to keep any comparisons to the film out of mind.

The title (and for that matter the plot) of the play is derived from the two real estate properties mentioned: Glengarry Highlands, a real estate development currently being sold, and Glen Ross Farms, a previous crème del le crème real estate development. A sales contest pits the salesmen against each other. Driven to desperation, they resort to manipulation, bribery and even burglary and theft to keep their jobs. The dog-eat-dog action that ensues is intense, laden with F-bombs, and brings with it all the intensity of life in a pressure cooker.

Mamet came to the public’s attention with plays including, American BuffaloSpeed the PlowOleanna, and Cryptogram.Considered a classic of 20th century theater, Glengarry Glen Ross shows Mr. Mamet at the top of his game – a key reason this play has become a regional theater staple.

As rendered by Shelton Theater, the scenic aspects of the show were solid. A Chinese restaurant, the focus of the first few scenes of the production, boasted beautiful red upholstery and was accented with maple-stained wood trim.  With clean lines, the restaurant set was complemented by a simple black lacquer table and white curtains.  The real estate office’s white walls included a well-painted marble effect that transported the audience right into the twisted business.  Both sets leveraged the Shelton Theater’s size and geometry to good effect.

Shelton’s prop designer invoked realism with everything in its proper place and a well thought-out design. Costumes were realistic, pressed/ironed as appropriate and well presented. Costuming style/design elements were well considered and selected, showing us the best of dress for the mid-1980s. Actor traffic on and off the sets worked well.

To the credit of Stage Manager, the action behind the scenes was smooth. Lighting and sound crews were on their mark and associated cues were tight. One note: sound effects and music underscoring the key set change were a bit overdone. The lighting plot was serviceable.

From a directing perspective, Mamet challenges directors of every experience level. Director Sasha Litovchenko’s casting was solid and the seasoned actors did a good job with the material. Mr. Shelton’s work in particular was outstanding. Philip Estrin avoids clichés and nails the role of down-but-not-quite-out Shelley Levene. Matt Crawford as Moss, looks straight out of Central Casting as the schemer who launches the idea of the salesmen robbing their own office.

Overall, the Shelton Theater’s production of Mamet is a solid presentation of a great American classic. For the small audience on Friday night, Shelton largely delivered the goods. If you like drama, go see this solid take on an American classic.

Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet plays through August 29th.

Tickets are $25-$50 (with discounts available) and are available online athttp://www.sheltontheater.org or by calling 415.882.9100.

Show times and Place: Thursday – Saturday 8:00pm. Box Office and Bar open at 7:00pm

The Shelton Theater is located at 533 Sutter St. between Powell and Mason, in San Francisco.

***

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

 

ASR Theater Review! Aurora Theater Hits High Gear with ‘Detroit’ — by Kris Neely

A 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist, Detroit is as humorous as it is sharp. With tight writing by Lisa D’Amour (Airline Highway), the critically acclaimed play skillfully tangles the lives of a seemingly responsible older couple and a younger, more careless pair. Josh Costello ably directs Aurora Theater’s production in Berkeley, which leaves some in the audience diffident at best.

A friendly BBQ serves as a façade to the wreckage ahead in this well-structured expose’ on American life that shows just how distrusting people should be of others during oppressive economic times. At the outset, Ben (Jeff Garrett) and Mary (Amy Resnick) are a sharply drawn lower-middle class couple who fire up the grill for an All-American BBQ to welcome Sharon (Luisa Frasconi) and Kenny (Patrick Jones), a couple of drifters who move into the house next door — sans furniture.

As the neighborhood foursome bonds over backyard barbecues, remembered dreams and helping hands, their neighborly connection gets personal and accelerates into unanticipated directions, which threatens to ignite more than just their friendship.

Jeff Garrett is a Dick Van Dyke clone—with loose limbs, a rubbery face, and impeccable comedic timing. Even when the play’s focus is elsewhere, his impressive and adept listening and reactionary skills command attention. While most actors simply wait for their turn to speak, Mr. Garrett has truly mastered the art of active listening. Luisa Frasconi is, well, simply an amazing talent in bloom. It takes no stretch of the imagination to say that, one day, in the not-too-distant-future, we will all be paying large sums to see this funny, gifted lady work. Patrick Jones and Amy Resnick are solid performers.

Mr. Costello’s direction takes full advantage of the intimate space that is Aurora Theater’s main stage. His stage pictures are well-chosen, and his blocking, which can be tricky in a thrust environment like Aurora’s, almost always works smoothly.

The lighting design by Kurt Landisman is precise and skillful, at times even approaching ingenious. While most of the production is set outside the house, his clever lighting effects, used to light the interior during the tumultuous conclusion, are simple but very powerful. Using light to emphasize the denouement of Detroit is a bold choice that pays off in huge dividends.

Mikiko Uesugi’s set design masterfully takes advantage of the postage stamp stage. The attractive, solid and spare set could be a lesson in space economization for other designers. Uesui’s set construction — a wholly underappreciated aspect of live theater– was professional and well done. Theater carpenters, set construction staff, and set designers: this production is a shining example of design and handiwork.

The modern-day costumes by Christine Crook are perfect for the urban setting and complement the actors and the script.

The work backstage is deftly navigated. Set changes are flawless. Special marks go to the small backstage crew who not only maneuver what must be a chaotic backstage, but also who help the actors effect costume changes in the blink-of-an-eye, and under enormous performance pressure.

Daniel Banato resists the urge, too common in contemporary theater, to present the audience with a prop-laden set. Mr. Banato’s choices are largely complementary. His top-shelf props for the iterative grilling action are creative.

As pivotal to the plot as food and drink are, the clear sight of plastic props in lieu of legitimate consumables is an eye sore. While some productions get away with fabricated food and beverage, this piece demands the consumption of real, genuine food and ditto for the beverages which figure so prominently in the story.

Cliff Caruthers deserves special note for his very personal sound design. From subtle sound effects to music he specially produced for Detroit, Caruthers gives audiences something they rarely get today in a dramatic comedy, a well thought-out, carefully-considered and crisply rendered sound design—four stars for Mr. Caruthers.

Wesley Apfel’s stage management was tight, effective, and well executed. With as many moving parts as this production has, it’s clear Apfel’s presence and skill are in demand backstage.

Detroit’s greatest strengths lie in its technical aspects. From direction and stage management to lighting and sound, and from costumes and props to set design and construction, Aurora Theater’s production is a winner. It’s a real master class in technical artistry of contemporary theater.

Detroit ends its extended run on Sunday July 26, 2015. Tickets are available by phone on (510) 843-4822, online at http://www.auroratheater.org, or in person at the Aurora Theater Box Office, 2081 Addison St., in Berkeley.

***

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

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

 

 

 

ASR Theater Review! RVP Has a Hit with ‘Pirates of Penzance’ — by Kris Neely

The Pirates of Penzance, that stalwart classic penned by messieurs Gilbert and Sullivan, as rendered in Ross Valley Players’ last show of the season, is pretty much the model of what a modern community theater musical should be.

For those unfamiliar with the comic opera staple, here is the plot in a nutshell:  set on the rocky coast of Cornwall, England, the play, which sends up Victorian-era values, begins with a group of not-too-nice pirates who are celebrating the birthday of one of their own, Frederic, who has reached his twenty-first year. Finally having served the full length of his required time with the pirates, he decides to strike off on his own and become an upstanding citizen – which may even mean bringing the pirates to justice. This turns out to be a tricky prospect indeed, especially when Frederic’s freedom is called into question! It seems Frederic was born on February 29th, a birth date that only appears every four years — and even pirates can do that math. Insert singing matrons, dancing pirates, eyelash-batting lasses, clueless cops and a snappy major-general (more on him later), and in the end all winds up peachy-keen with the world, with all the he’s and she’s ending up with the right he’s and she’s.

Singing propels the story: fourteen songs in Act One and a matching number in Act Two. All that and an intermission in two hours. The result is, as always with Gilbert & Sullivan, a rousing good tale of duty done right.

Few stage directors know how to put actors into stage pictures as well as James Dunn. Mr. Dunn positions actors with such precision, sureness and balance that one could pluck a B&W Polaroid snapshot (if such a thing still existed) out of a stack of 500 directors’ scenes and know immediately it belonged to Mr. Dunn.

Mr. Dunn’s stagings to date have been Master’s theses in scene tableau. He earns full marks here as his hand and eye retain their touch in Pirates. Given the obvious spatial restrictions, lighting limitations and distinctive visual quirks of The Barn, that’s saying a lot.

Speaking of a master’s touch, the same meticulousness and seasoned expertise were apparent in Michael Berg’s costumes. It’s fair to say that Mr. Berg’s costumes were, with all respect to Mr. Dunn’s stage pictures, a hefty percentage of what made the production colorful and powerful. By the time the intermission rolled around, seven peacocks had gotten out of the business.

While we’re on the subject of hues, Ron Krempetz’s imaginatively simple set, adroitly executed by Michael Walraven, enjoyed the benefits of lighting designer Dhyanis’ (yep – one name) equally developed sense and appreciation for tint. Avoiding the cartoonish effects and crayon coloring that sadly so often accompany regional renditions of musicals of this stripe, Dhyanis showed restraint, and a keen eye, which permitted the set to support the show in style. Delightful work.

Then there was Norman A. Hall.

Holding the audience’s heart in the palm of his hand, Mr. Hall delivered a performance that alone was worth the price of admission. Aspiring actor Major-Generals, take note of Mr. Hall as The Very Model.

Pirates premiered in the Big Apple in 1879. In 1980, Joe Papp and the trusty New York City Public Theater revived the show and gave it a modern tonal makeover, driving a broader musical comedy style with the play as well, and as a result the show’s popularity has swelled for new generations. At Ross Valley Players, opening night 2015 served this tradition.

Some minor areas need smoothing-out, but there’s more than enough technical artistry and acting/singing/dancing pizazz to charm its audience.

Show dates are:

  • Thursdays 7:30 pm on July 23, 30 & Aug. 6 & 13
  • Fridays 8:00 pm on July 24, 31 & Aug. 7 & 14
  • Saturdays 8:00 pm on July 25 and Aug. 1, 8 & 15
  • Sundays 2:00 pm on July 26 and Aug. 2, 9 & 16

For tickets and other information, consult the Ross Valley Players website atwww.rossvalleyplayers.com or call their Box Office on (415) 456-9555.

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

***

Kris Neely is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theater Critics Circle and a Theater Bay Area (TBA) Adjudicator.

Mr. Neely’s blogs on theater and performing arts are found on Aisle Seat Review at www.AisleSeatReview.com and also on For All Events at www.ForAllEvents.com.

Mr. Neely is a huge fan of Tejava!

 

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