An Aisle Seat Review. OTP Tries Drive-in Theater With Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station – by Vic Cordell

It’s been virtually a year since the pandemic darkened the live performance stage. All theatergoers lament the absence of our favorite intellectual stimulation and fear that many theatrical organizations may lack the wherewithal to rebound from financial catastrophe.

Many companies now offer electronic alternatives – from the filming of previous stage performances to original productions using Zoom technology. Although electronic media don’t offer the same urgency and reward as live performances, these endeavors do provide a way for companies to reach their audience and for audiences to support companies.

Enter drive-in theater productions which, unlike viewing at home, offer the advantage of bringing theater lovers together at the venue to recreate some sense of community and allow some possibility of live elements. So it goes with Oakland Theater Project’s (OTP – formerly Ubuntu) entire 2021 season. In keeping with OTP’s origins as a peripatetic, site-specific theater company, its season opener Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station takes place away from its current home base. Even more poignant, the visuals are cast upon the outside walls of the titular station in Oakland.

This presentation of Binding Ties is the 30th anniversary of the documentary created by the esteemed Bay Area theatrical lighting designer, Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson, with Michael Copeland Sydnor. It focuses on the African-American, and to a small extent, on the Asian and Mexican immigrant minority’s experience working in service capacities on long-distance trains in the first half of the 20th century.

The stately Beaux-Arts-styled 16th Street Station plays a major character in the stories that unfold. The station itself was damaged by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and was subsequently condemned, and former rail lines have been rerouted to other stations. Nonetheless, attempts to revive and repurpose this beautiful grande dame continue to this day.

…The concept and message of Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station appeal and deserve our patronage…

In addition to contextual narration, recorded interviews comprise the substance of Binding Ties The subjects are Oakland-based, Southern Pacific Railroad workers, primarily sleeping car porters, who recount vignettes of their lives and work. This worthy look into history reveals maltreatment of minorities in this country, even those with relatively esteemed employment.  Despite their dignified hard work, their tales reveal many layers of indignity directed toward them. The pay was poor. Treatment by passengers and supervisors was often demeaning. Unfounded claims that black employees were stealing from passengers and the company were common. And even though female employees served as stewardesses, they were classified and referred to as maids.

The viewer also catches glimpses into the sometimes very luxurious aspects of train travel that also serve to emphasize the social and economic gulf between the passengers and those who served them. Although the interesting storytelling yields a kaleidoscopic view of working on the trains, there is no dramatic arc or trend line leading to a dénouement.

One bright spot reported in the documentary was the founding of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925, which protected and advanced its members. This noteworthy accomplishment in the labor and civil rights movements was the first-ever union founded and led by African-Americans to be chartered by the American Federation of Labor.

As a result of inconsistent audio quality in the soundtrack (delivered by FM through car radios), some speakers sound loud and clear, but others are faint or scratchy, suggesting the need for audio engineering. Sound designer Kevin Myrick has incorporated musical numbers, beginning with the appropriate “Hear That Train Whistle Blow,” that add life and dimensionality to the piece.

The visual component of the work is represented by a slide show of relevant black and white period photos projected on two screens. The parking spot assigned this reviewer was extremely oblique to the screens so that most text and smaller image details in the nearer screen could not be deciphered, and nothing could be discerned on the far screen.

In order to add a live element to the production, a “Conductor” played by William Oliver III introduces and closes the show.  From my vantage point, I heard him clearly but caught only a glimpse of him. The concept makes sense, but more content and spark for the role would be welcomed.

The concept and message of Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station appeal and deserve our patronage. However, the dramatic elements could be strengthened as could the technical side of delivering performance with this technique. Nonetheless, credit is due Oakland Theater Project for taking on important topics and providing some intellectual stimulation for its supporters.

Oakland Theater Project’s Binding Ties: The 16th Street Station

Created by Dr. Stephanie Anne Johnson with Michael Copeland Sydnor

Performances in the parking lot of Oakland’s 16th Street Train Station

Through February 28, 2021

Tickets: Per car price, $25 for one person, $30 for two, with some pay-what-you-can.  No sales at the door.

Ticket info:

Reviewer ratings

  • Overall: 3 of 5 stars
  • Performance: 3 of 5
  • Script: 4 of 5
  • Stagecraft: 3 of 5

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.




An Aisle Seat Review! San Francisco Opera’s Drive-in “Tosca” – by Vic Cordell

Photo courtesy SF Opera.

San Francisco Opera’s stage at the War Memorial Opera House has remained dark for nearly a year.

Happily, the company keeps touch with its patrons by initiating informative programs and delivering streaming performances of previous productions online.  It has now embarked on events to rouse its community out of their chairs and sofas.  Last weekend, SF Opera offered four screenings in the drive-in movie format at Fort Mason.  The filming was the company’s 2009 fine production of Puccini’s brilliant “Tosca.”  A review of the film of a 12-year-old stage production that has completed its drive-in run may seem fatuous.  However, it could be of interest to those who might consider viewing a future streaming of the production or buying an electronic copy.

Although not without its detractors, who consider it melodramatic and musically harsh, audience and most music critics’ love of “Tosca” have not wavered since overcoming its hostile debut in 1900.  In contrast with the lyrical beauty of the other two of Puccini’s top three operas, “La Boheme” and “Madama Butterfly,” “Tosca’s” music and drama are bombastic and conflictual almost throughout.  But this opera is also exceptionally artful in many dimensions and includes several masterful arias and love duets.

As specified by the score, the SF Opera’s Marco Armiliato-conducted orchestra roars and often punctuates with the deliciously ominous and powerful Scarpia leitmotif.  As one of the most demanding roles in the repertoire, the title character demands a soprano with the dramatic vocal power of a Wagnerian, who is able to caress poignant Pucciniesque melody.  Oh, and she must possess a full palette of acting colors with an array of emotions.  Two male leads must also be of top-caliber.

San Francisco Opera appeals to opera singers as a company, and it possesses one of the great singer development systems, thus performers in support roles are generally excellent.

Since aficionados value seeing multiple productions of the same opera, the notion of a plot spoiler doesn’t really exist in this realm.  So here’s a synopsis of the central plot.  In 1800, painter Cavaradossi is a partisan sympathizer opposed to Napoleon’s domination of Rome.   When caught harboring a political enemy of the state, he is tortured by the police.  The scheming chief of police, Scarpia, courts sexual favors from Tosca with the promise of freeing her lover, Cavaradossi.  All goes awry.  All three die – violently, of course.

Adrienne Pieczonka plays Tosca, and she possesses the vocal and dramatic chops required.  She retains pitch control while singing at full power for extended periods, especially during the high tension train wreck of Act 2, full of intrigue, interrogation, intimidation, betrayal, torture, and more.  But amidst this melee comes Tosca’s beautiful signature aria “Vissi d’Arte” (I lived for art).   It emerges after a significant pause which renders an almost dreamlike quality as Tosca seems to imagine herself removed to another place.  Pieczonka delivers the aria with confident assertiveness, but the style of a plaintive lament might better fit her ethereal escape.

Photo courtesy SF Opera.

Antagonist Scarpia is deftly performed and solidly sung by Lado Antoneli, though his “Te Deum” would have benefited from a stronger lower register.  The artist’s patrician gray wig and unthreatening visage belie his character’s nihilistic sadism.  Though falsely pious, polite, and proper when necessary, Scarpia’s singing “I savor violent conquest more than surrender” reveals his inner rage.  Antoneli mines these contradictions well as he punishes Cavaradossi and manipulates Tosca into a compromising position.

Spinto tenor Carlo Ventre is Cavaradossi.  Blessed with a warm vibrato, he sings in a manner associated with some Italian singers which is the opera corollary to country music twang.  Some listeners may not care for this style which is most evident in his beautiful Act 1 number “Recondita Armonia” (Concealed harmony).  But in his Act 3 lament, “E Lucevan Le Stelle” (And the stars were shining), the whine is less discernable, and he excels in this famed aria as he reflects on love and contemplates his imminent execution.

San Francisco Opera appeals to opera singers as a company, and it possesses one of the great singer development systems, thus performers in support roles are generally excellent.  This is true of “Tosca,” led by Dale Travis as the nervous sacristan.  Stage Director Jose Maria Condemi marshals top-ranked creative designers.  The opera plays on a world-class set designed by Thierry Bosquet.

Photo courtesy SF Opera.

Of course, this is a filming of a stage performance, not a movie, and some shortfalls should be expected.  A great fear in filming a staged opera is that it will seem static, like a video archival record.  In this case, multiple cameras are used, but they shoot from fixed positions — meaning they can zoom and pan, but not dolly.  Editing cuts are sharp, so while there is reasonable variety in camerawork, the outcome is somewhat jerky and stilted.  In addition, lighting and sound production are designed for the live audience, not for filming, so some deficiencies exist.  That said, this is a fine production with a great cast performing one of the great operas in history.  It is a worthwhile watch.

“Tosca” composed by Giacomo Puccini with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa was produced by San Francisco Opera in 2009 and played on-screen outdoors at Fort Mason on February 12-14, 2021. SF Opera has also announced newly-coined “live at the drive-in”—including productions of “Barber of Seville” and a concert of the Adler Fellows.

Reviewer ratings:

  • Overall: 5 of 5
  • Performance: 4 of 5
  • Script: 5 of 5
  • Stagecraft: 5 of 5

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.





AN AISLE SEAT THEATER REVIEW! Foothill’s “Bullets over Broadway” Hits its Mark – by Victor Cordell

At the core of his comic genius, Woody Allen creates fictional lead characters who share his neuroses. He then places them in situations rich with local color based on his own experience and observation.

With Bullets over Broadway, he wrote a highly successful screenplay for a movie that received considerable award recognition. In transitioning the story to the stage and adding music, it was honored with six Tony nominations, but its box office outcome was modest at best. Perhaps its failure to earn a long run is because it entertains but doesn’t wow.

Rejection and crises of confidence plague authors, and in this instance, the Woody Allen proxy is a young playwright, David Shayne, whose break to get financing for his first Broadway-destined play comes with a catch. Borrowing a theme that Allen and many others have used before, the finance depends on giving a role in the play to the girlfriend of the money man.

Oh, and in this case, the money man happens to be a gangster. Needless to say, the girlfriend is as talentless as she is witless, and with a whiny-screechy voice that is the reincarnation of Jean Hagen in the movie Singin’ in the Rain. To make matters worse, rehearsals reveal great inadequacies in David’s manuscript. But an unlikely source will put the project on the right path and dramatically alter the future of David and his collaborators.

Allen resisted the theatrical conversion of this property but having a taste for pop standards, was finally convinced by the suggestion that the musical score be comprised of songs from the period of the action. This strategy works in giving the music an authenticity and a pleasant familiarity with tunes like “Let’s Misbehave,” “Up a Lazy River,” and “There’ll be Some Changes Made.” Many updated lyrics enliven the old chestnuts, fit the plot line, and are quite funny.

…Foothill Music Theatre’s production offers … gusto and … humor … for a fun evening…

At the same time, its period characteristics may be what prevents Bullets from unqualified success, especially with younger audiences. In addition to its ‘20s music, the plotline intersection of Broadway and gangsters evokes Damon Runyon’s stories that were used as the basis for the musical Guys and Dolls and may seem dated.

However, Bullets contains a bevy of stereotyped characters that provide charm – from the fading diva to the actor whose food urges undermine his career – and stock situations like the playwright resisting script changes to maintain his integrity and the younger man being seduced by the lure of an older woman.

Overall, Foothill Music Theatre’s production offers enough gusto and extracts enough humor from the material for a fun evening. Not to say that it meets professional standards, but as a community theater offering, it satisfies. Most performers have peaks and valleys in both singing and acting, but each has high points that are quite worthy. Singing voices tend to have strong sweet spots that diminish outside that narrow range. And while the situational humor is uneven, the many one-line zingers uniformly hit the target.

Early on, Adam Cotungno as David seems caught between channeling Woody Allen and establishing his own role interpretation. By Act 2, both his acting and vocalizations exude confidence, and when he frantically delivers “The Panic is On,” he nails it. His nemesis is Olive, played convincingly by Jocelyn Pinkett, who inhabits the lower-class floozy with flair. Carla Befera hits her stride as the prideful and self-indulgent older actress, Helen, with a fine rendition of the appropriate “I Ain’t Gonna Play No Second Fiddle.” Finally, Nick Mandracchia masters the role of Cheech, the man in the shadows.

Milissa Carey directs commendably considering the resource requirements of the production. Bullets contains a huge number of scene changes. Andrew Breithaupt’s basic set is complemented by a revolving platform and a cache of movable props to give simple scenic suggestion, while Lily McLeod’s lighting effectively evokes mood shifts. Dance elements are demanding, and Claire Alexander’s choreography generally works, but execution is often out of kilter. Sharon Peng deserves a nod for the scope of costumery required for the production.

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.



ProductionBullets Over Broadway
Written byWoody Allen
Directed byMilissa Carey
Producing CompanyFoothill Music Theatre
Production DatesThrough March 17th
Production Address12345 El Monte Rd.
Los Altos Hills, CA 94022
Telephone(650) 949-7360
Tickets$15 - $36
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?----


An Aisle Seat Theater Review! “Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid” – by Victor Cordell

For anyone who has been diagnosed with a fatal disease, the period leading to death can be painful and profound. If one can carry out normal activities under the sentence of death, the person often makes a conscious decision whether to live as routinely as possible; whether to surround one’s self with what is most cherished; or whether to splurge on very special and perhaps extravagant experiences.

In any case, philosophical reflection is inevitable. But what if one knows that life will end for all of humanity at a prescribed time? Say, an asteroid large enough to obliterate life hurtles inexorably toward earth.

In Jeffrey Lo’s new comic farce, Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid, a prophet of doom named Alfred Winters had accurately predicted “The Vanishing” in which half of humanity recently disappeared at once without a trace. Now Winters has assured those who have survived that the world will end at midnight on the day that the action of the play takes place. By the way, for those like me who have trouble deciphering the title, you probably don’t know that “OK Cupid” is an online dating site. Now it should make sense.

The narrative centers on two couples and several other characters whose lives intersect. Each couple has just met on the fateful day through OK Cupid, which should suggest that the characters are not exactly Homecoming King and Queen material. These young adults, as couples and with others, go through relationship rituals and the memes of daily life – from hypnotically gazing into cell phones to confronting the condescending barista at the coffee shop over a $20 cuppa.

…in the notable words of Caitlyn, “Before we learn to die, should we learn to live?”

Although some aspects of the play are universal, many themes and characters will speak more effectively to a younger audience. Millennials (and stoners?) may find the comedy-club and sketch-type humor funny throughout, but much of it seems strained, even though the actors animate the dialogue as well as can be expected. Humor in the script needs to be fine-tuned, and strands need to be tightened, as some of the segments never connect well with the overall arc. In fact, the funniest segment, a Scotsman, played by Flip Hofman, who reveals his OK Cupid self-summary and six things he can’t live without, fails to integrate at all.

Tasi Alabastro as the hyperkinetic Ben and Michelle Skinner as the depressive Caitlyn bring energy to the lead roles and are effective overall, while Keith Larson seems at risk of blowing out his carotid artery from his frenzied depiction of Winters. At the other extreme, Michael Weiland seems totally natural as the relaxed Bong, and in a small bit, Tyler Pardini nails it as the low affect open-mic, poetry emcee.

The staging suits the vignette-driven nature of the story. Open staircases, platforms, and catwalks comprise Paulo Deleal’s set, with the occasional addition of cafe tables and chairs. Director Michael Champlin aptly isolates scenes on the stage, and actors who are not performing can comfortably hang out in other locations (and fiddle on their cell phones!). Megan Souther’s lighting complements the overall effect. Generally, low lighting is supported by spots and mobile area highlights. Cell phones are particularly effective for facial illumination.

The driving motives of the play are strong. Although the situations are intimate and farcical, existential matters are broached. What is the point of life and why do things remain important to us once we know the end is imminent? Yet, in the notable words of Caitlyn, “Before we learn to die, should we learn to live?”

Spending the End of the World on OK Cupid by Jeffrey Lo is produced by Pear Theatre and plays at its stage at 1110 La Avenida, Mountain View, CA through February 17, 2019.

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.




ProductionSpending the End of the World on OK Cupid
Written byJeffrey Lo
Directed byMichael Champlin
Producing CompanyPear Theater
Production DatesThru Feb. 17th
Production AddressPear Theater
1110 La Avenida St.
Suite A
Mountain View, CA 94043
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?-----