Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Lucia Berlin: Stories"

Lucia Berlin: Stories
From A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin

Jeri Lynn Cohen
Each of five stories by an author who once claimed, “Everything I write is autobiographical” offers independently a glimpse of one salient moment in her rollercoaster life.  When presented together, the five provide a heart-warming, inspirational journey from heart-breaking depths to her victory over alcohol addiction.  As a short-story writer, Lucia Berlin was only marginally known and read during her lifetime; but eleven years after her death, a compilation of her life’s stories was published as A Manual for Cleaning Women, hitting the New York Times bestseller list in its second week.  It is from that book -- which went on to sell more than all her previous books combined -- that the team members from Z Space’s Word for Word have chosen five stories to present as a new work entitled Lucia Berlin: Stories. 

Members of the Ensemble of Lucia Berlin: Stories
Told in the company’s unique manner of theatrically staging the written words right off the book’s page with sentences often pieced together in sequenced phrases by several actors in passing, Lucia Berlin: Stories is powerfully narrated by an exceptional cast who convey with humor, pathos, care, and empathy the author’s total story through these five pieces.  Nancy Shelby and JoAnne Winter direct this eight-person ensemble through a constant maze of complicated, constant changes in scenes, characters, and motifs.  And always the story reigns supreme as sentences and paragraphs flow seamlessly from one actor to the next, each relating the story as if reading from the book’s page. 

With all its dependence on the words of the story, Word for Word opens Lucia Berlin: Stories with a powerful, silent sequence (choreographed by Christy Funsch) as a woman lashes out in an alcohol-induced rage, is arrested and bound, and is transferred to a cell of some sort.  She and the cast around her – all of whom figuratively mime her chaos and capture – are dressed in grey-striped outfits (designed by Michelle Mulholland) that could serve as the wardrobe for either prison or a mental institution, both of which we will learn our heroine will often frequent as this and the other stories progress.  The loss of control, the desperate need for another drink, and the agony of the alcohol’s consequences are all captured in these first couple of minutes – all to be repeated in more graphic sequences as we learn more details of her life.

Jeri Lynn Cohen
Jeri Lynn Cohen is Carlotta in the first story, “Her First Detox,” and will also be known as Lucille and Mrs. Bevins in the stories to follow; but her “Everywoman” is clearly always the author, Lucia.  Ms. Cohen is nothing short of brilliant as she conveys the anxiety, the deviousness, and the deceit as well as the good-naturedness, generous spirit, and boundless ingenuity of a woman who is drunk more often than not.  She is a mother of four who somehow makes breakfast for them at 7 a.m. after sneaking out at 4 a.m. to walk one-and-a-half miles to be the first in line to buy a four-dollar bottle of cheap vodka at 6 a.m. (from the story “Unmanageable”).  In “Emergency Room Notebook,” she is an emergency room attendant who kibitzes with her co-worker about good-and-bad deaths/smart-and-dumb suicides in between also comforting families of the newly dead or patiently once again listening to the fake screams of the woman known as Marlene the Migraine – all done before she frantically dashes to the parking lot for a giant swig from a bottle of booze.  Throughout each of these stories, Ms. Cohen conveys a woman who is not a demon, who could be someone we all know, but who definitely has a monstrous, pervasive problem that consumes much of her life and effects the lives of kids who must hide her keys and wallet in order to keep her safe and hopefully sober (not).

Indiia Wilmott, Norman Gee, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Gendell Hernández & Ryan Williams French
One of the most important aspects of Lucia Berlin’s works and this cast’s depictions is to put a face of humanity on those we often pass quickly in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley, or on Any/Every Street throughout the Bay Area.  Those we see as just another drunk are in these stories real people with names, quirks, heart, and humor; and they are a community of people the rest of us mostly want to forget.  Yes, there are the moments when they are rolling and reeking in their own wretched situations as is shown in several of the stories (like a bone-chilling chain-gang-like opening of “Unmanageable” where a line-up of the intoxicated chant in grunts and groans while stomping their feet in a dance of desperation).  However, we see the chumminess and the camaraderie that “Lucia” has with her fellow lovers of the bottle in scenes like a very funny incident in the story “502” where her abandoned car rolls into the inhabited Chevy Cosair of Ace, Champ, Little Ripple, and Horatio – guys who may be drunks like she but who are also people that any of us just might like if we got to know them.

The myriad of roles the other eight members of this ensemble play to fill in the details of Lucia’s stories range from street drunks to her kids, from doctors/nurses to grieving/wailing Gypsies, from jail warden and neighborhood cop to inmates in a prison.  The variety of accents, demeanors, personalities, ages, and sexes each person is asked to assume (often for only a few seconds) is astounding; and the orchestrated movements, shifts, and transformations occur without a word dropped from the continuous flow of the story’s narration among the nine ensemble members.  Cassidy Brown, Ryan Williams French, Norman Gee, Gendell Hernández, Delia MacDougall, Indiia Wilmott, and Phil Wong are together an ensemble extraordinaire – each bringing well-calculated, naturally appearing nuances and particulars to the many persona they inhabit.

Cassidy Brown, Jeri Lynn Cohen, Norman Gee & Phil Wong
Lest anyone doubt, there is a happy ending in perhaps the unlikeliest of locales and situations.  Amidst the otherwise daily boredom, putrid smells, and cramped quarters (six to a cell meant for two) of a prison, the evening’s finale “Here It Is Saturday” is an uplifting look at a now sober-for-good Mrs. Bevins (aka “Lucia”) teaching a writing class to an eclectic class of felons, men whose lives are made just a bit brighter by a woman whom they know has traveled some of the same alleys and inhabited some of the same cells they have.  The final image of the evening is still somber and sobering, but the message is one of a heroine who conquers her demons and touches many lives during both the difficult journey and at its conclusion.

Nine movable, stackable boxes are the principal set design of Oliver DiCicco, Naomie Kremer, and Jacqueline Scott; but in their simplicity comes a plethora of scenes and uses – all becoming part of the constant dance this cast performs in telling a total story that is always on the move.  Particularly powerful is the video accompaniment to many of those scenes as designed by Naomie Kremer -- never any more impactful than a stark sidewalk and its wavering cracks as Lucia makes her 4 a.m. trip and back to the liquor store.  Jim Cave’s lighting casts the patterns, spots, and shadows that further bring these stories to life, while the jazz score composed by Marcus Shelby both honors the love of jazz Ms. Berlin is said to have as well as mirrors the tension, the loneliness, and the occasional triumphs of Lucia and her fellow characters.

Members of the Ensemble
While each of the five stories serves its part in telling Lucia’s overall journey, “Emergency Room Notes” is one that perhaps could be either eliminated or shortened without doing much damage to her overall story.  It is easily a stand-alone, often very funny look at emergency rooms and the people who work there, with the final note that even people who are saving others’ lives have issues themselves (in this case, drinking).  But for the total two-and-a-half-hour Lucia Berlin: Stories (including intermission), this particular story is one of the longest without adding elements quite as essential as do the others.

To a long line of Word for Word, uniquely and successfully related stories that jump from page to stage now joins the world premiere of Lucia Berlin: Stories.  For all of us who harbor stereotypes about the drunks in the street or about those drunks in the office, home, or school, Lucia Berlin: Stories is a must-ingredient of our recovery plan.

Rating: 5 E

Lucia Berlin: Stories continues through March 11, 2018 in production by Z Space’s Word for Word at Z Below, 470 Florida Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Photos by Julie Schuchard

Saturday, February 17, 2018

"Non-Player Character"

Non-Player Character
Walt McGough
San Francisco Playhouse, Sandbox Series

Devin O'Brien, Annemaria Rajala, Tyler McKenna & Emily Radosevich
As #MeToo revelations proliferate from the worlds of business, entertainment, politics, education, and beyond and as stories continue to emerge of high school and college students being harassed online by jealous and spiteful classmates, the world premiere of San Francisco Playhouse’s Non-Player Character by Walt McGough could unfortunately not be more timely.  As part of its Sandbox Series featuring new plays receiving something more than a staged reading and something less than a full-on, main-stage production, Non-Player Character under the imaginative, cutting-edge, no-holes-barred direction of Lauren English is a new work setting high standards in its creative approach and its compelling, disquieting, and thought-provoking messages.

Devin O'Brien & Emily Radosevich
Friends since childhood, Katja and Trent are now twenty-somethings on opposite coasts who are an unbeatable team in the virtual world of Spearlight Chronicles III -- an online role-playing game where they meet, chat, and play games regularly as avatars.  While not at a local coffee shop or bar, they still have that same back-and-forth habit of finishing each other’s incomplete thoughts, of providing lots of friendly and even heartfelt support, and of just being friends hanging out.  But when they don their online armor, they are an unbeatable duo as they fight a wicked farmer’s Evil Zuchinni, Enraged Rose, or the most dreaded of all – the Pumpkin-Spiced Doom.

Their virtual meetings and battles are astonishingly recreated by a stellar team that Lauren English has assembled.  Jacqueline Scott’s set design, Wolfgang Wachalovsky’s lighting, and especially Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s sound and projection designs combine with Leandra Watson’s other worldly costumes to put us as audience smack dab in the middle of an online, virtual world that is so real to be both fascinating and creepy.  For the entire first act and some of the second, we only encounter avatars -- some of which are controlled by unseen players and some appearing as NPC’s, a non-player character controlled by the game and not by a gamer. 

But those avatars are in fact very real with deeply felt emotions that develop, grow, and finally want to burst into the open.  It is when a confession of love is sweetly and awkwardly made by Trent’s avatar to Katja’s – a love evidently with real-world roots from their encounters in college – that a glitch pops up in their now exclusively online relationship. 

Emily Radosevich
When not working as a barista at Starbucks, Katja is an aspiring game developer, creating a game based on storytelling versus killing monsters.  Her new life in Seattle has time for work, game design, and occasional online tournaments against monsters.  However in her real-life world, there is no time or desire to have her avatar friendship with Trent (who in reality is back in Lancaster, PA) become what he wants -- a move to her coast in order to be closer to her.

When Katja’s avatar is less than welcoming of virtual Trent’s expressed hope to be more real-world in their relationship, the actual Trent turns to the online gaming community for support and revenge of his hurt feelings.  Via a YouTube-like video, he tells a bitter story of being used by a female who is just looking to advance her own career, no matter whom she hurts along the way.  The vitriolic, anonymous reactions that explode online include language, pictures, and threats that are horrific and scary – all from people who have never met either Trent or Katja but who are now intent on ruining Katja’s life with the same vengeance they use to fight and kill online demons.  And we are witnesses as the play further unfolds to the effects and changes in victim Katja and in perpetrator Trent – neither now any longer avatars in their protective armor.

Both Emily Radosevich as Katja and Devin O’Brien as Trent are mesmerizing to watch as they manipulate and project their avatar selves in the first half of the play.  Both are attractively gawky as they work their way through conversations as avatars -- reflecting some combination of shyness, geekiness, and nervous energy that one might expect from two who are most at home when madly hitting the keys that send their warrior selves to fight the gigantic and deadly threats of a virtual, dark kingdom.  They talk back and forth mostly in spurts, starts, and stops -- often even as avatars unable to look eye-to-eye or to keep their hands from nervously twitching and shaking.

Emily Radosevich
Each of the two actors transforms in Act Two to a real-life person that is often difficult to watch.  Ms. Radosevich’s Katja breaks one’s heart and at the same time raises one’s rage seeing what she is going through due to online attacks that are threatening and damaging in very real ways.  She so realistically captures what we too often read about when someone – particularly a young woman – has become the target of virtual vitriolization.  And Mr. O’Brien’s Trent that we see via room-size videos is now a glassy eyed, smooth-talking monster – more unsettling and scary than the ones he and Katja so cleverly destroyed only a few days prior.

Other virtual and earthly beings inhabit Walt McGough’s new play; but none seems yet fully developed in concept or character while each still has hints of something intriguing.  Most compelling of this lot is Feldrick, an avatar bully who is also part buffoon as played bigger-than-life by Tyler McKenna.  A cross between cave-man and Tarzan, Feldrick is the first hint that there is an underlying gamer culture that is anti-women and just on the verge at any moment to be abusive in attitude and language. 

Feldrick’s sidekick is a slick, high-heeled Morwyn (Annemaria Rajala) who adds some humor as an avatar playing on mute and who also has her own real-life secrets.  But neither her online self or her real-life self (that one portrayed by Dean Koya as Grant) do much to advance the story and in fact are a bit distractive and puzzling in their present forms.

Charrise Loriaux is Naomi, Katja’s Starbucks manager and increasingly, her friend and sympathizer.  Ms. Loriaux’s idiosyncratic and quirky ways of portraying Naomi might work in a different story but seem somewhat disjointed and unnecessary in the present one.

But the strong message of this new work comes loud and clear through the outstanding performances and character development provided for Katja and Trent.  If anyone is at all doubtful that online, anonymous hateful messages are not a real and ever-present threat, consider this.  From just the press release of this play that states that “after a humiliating fall-out, Trent marshals an army of internet trolls to wage real-life war against her” (i.e., Katja), online reaction to the play has included messages (sent by some real person, somewhere) such as “a bunch of f---ts that they are artsy and more educated than other people” and “I’m guessing the play is women and gay men finding stuff straight men enjoy, infiltrating it, and destroying it.”

Yes, San Francisco Playhouse’s world premiere of the virtual world of Non-Player Character is all too real, all too reflective of an online world that is sometimes overrun by unseen, unidentified voices mean and misogynic and whose damage can be real.  This is a new work well-worth seeing and one that, with some further development, will hopefully have legs to play across the nation.

Rating: 3.5 E

Non-Player Character continues through March 3, 2018 in production as a part of San Francisco Playhouse’s Sandbox Series, playing at The Creativity Theatre, Yerba Buena Gardens, 221 4th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at www.sfplayhouse or by calling 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli

Friday, February 16, 2018

"At the Statue of Venus" and "Trouble in Tahiti"

At the Statue of Venus
Jake Heggie (Music); Terrence McNally (Libretto)
Trouble in Tahiti
Leonard Bernstein (Music & Libretto)

Steffi Cheong
The familiar opening notes of West Side Story rise in a percussion-piano duet, jazzier and with more edge than the Broadway version.  The evening’s prelude transitions into a probing, vibrating, and emotional “Maria” which saxophonist Michael Hernandez stunningly performs with pianist Keisuke Nakagoshi.  In the meantime, high above a statue of Venus who is taking a break from her podium to read a fashion magazine, museum-goers in 1950’s attire gaze at art.  As the music becomes more discordant with the sax dueling and clashing with clarinets and flute, this Venus (Steffi Cheong) comes to life with movements displaying an urgent searching and a reaching for something out there as if to discover who she really is.  But as the discords become ever more abrupt, her struggles succumb to resuming her position as an armless statute of female beauty, just in time for museum-goers to arrive to view her.

This intriguing, unusual opening is just the beginning of an evening where the search for relationship, love, and personal identity is a running and connected theme between two otherwise unrelated one-act operas: the 2005 At the Statue of Venus by Jake Heggie (music) and Terrence McNally (libretto) and the 1952 Trouble in Tahiti -- the only work for which Leonard Bernstein wrote both music and lyrics.  Under the innovative, imaginative direction of Brian Staufenbiel, Opera Parallèle cleverly and seamlessly links these two works into a before and after story of a woman anxiously, apprehensively waiting At the Statue of Venus for a blind date to show up, followed by a one-day glimpse of a couple whose marriage has all the signs of being Trouble in Tahiti.

Into the earlier scene of museum patrons gazing on a rather bored looking Venus enters an evidently excited young man (Eugene Brancoveanu) singing in his attractive baritone, “I got a feeling there’s a miracle due, gonna come true, coming to me ... Could it be?” As he disappears somewhere into the museum’s galleries, a woman named Rose approaches the statue bemoaning in her mezzo-soprano voice, “Meeting a blind date at the statue of Venus ... wearing black slacks!”  Her concerns and doubts of this venture on this blind date mount beyond just her choice of wardrobe as Rose (Abigail Levis) scolds herself with great comic effect in voice and with wildly expressive cheeks and eyebrows that capture her nervous excitement.  At the same time, she also softly glides through ever-higher notes with much grace as she dreamily imagines who her true love might be.  Always looking on, Ms. Cheong’s Venus reacts in full fascination to this woman seeking and yet scared of a potential date who might give her that same feeling of safety and protection that Rose declares in reflective song once was felt in her father’s arms.

While at the end of Jake Heggie’s captivating one-act At the Statue of Venus
we do not know if Rose has found her man or not, the second half of the evening begins with both Abigail Levis (alternating the role with Renée Rapier) and Eugene Brancoveanu (alternating with Kyle Albertson) returning as a married couple at the breakfast table, now as Dinah and Sam.  Their life together is clearly not a paradise as they struggle to communicate without really ever hearing what the other is trying to say.  Bickering and shooting virtual arrows in a marital battle that one quickly realizes is probably a daily occurrence, Bernstein gives them each moments of longing for more kindness -- for more of what they once supposedly had as a newly married couple.  Ms. Levis brings her gorgeously lyrical voice from the museum as Rose to dreamily now imagine as Dinah a garden where “love will teach us harmony and grace.”  Mr. Brancoveanu’s heavily knitted brow displays Sam’s desperate longing as he too sings in haunting, deeply moving voice, “Can’t we find our way back to the garden where we began?”

Both Rose and Sam also have moments in their day where they escape as best they can.  We see Sam on an exercise bike (while smoking a cigarette), admiring a little trophy he prizes for a win in handball while singing about his own manhood: “There are fish that go swimming and fish that end up in the pot.”  Rose heads to the movies to see “Trouble in Tahiti;” but in her version, she sees herself and Sam on the big screen in “Island Magic,” a wonderfully funny spin on 1950s beach films as delightfully created by projection designer, David Murakami.

Krista Wigle, Andres Ramirez & Bradley Kynard
As Rose and Sam proceed through their day and evening, a trio that one might have found in a Reno nightclub in the ‘50s sings in the role of a Greek chorus, painting a picture of the ideal life of “Sur-bur-i-a,” using the same note pattern this is reminiscent of Bernstein’s “New York, New York” from On the Town.   Soprano Krista Wigle, tenor Andres Ramirez, and baritone Bradley Kynard scat nonsensically, “Skid a lit day, skid a lit day ... ratty boo.”  They also describe how “morning sun kisses” the little white houses, their driveways, and their flagstones on front lawns in the suburbs of places like Scarsdale, Shaker Heights, Highland Park, and Beverley Hills (along with other named, very white, and very upscale ‘burbs of the ‘50s).  Bernstein has given their musical interludes the sound and feel of TV/radio commercials, all accentuated again by the incredible tongue-in-cheek humor of Mr. Murakami’s projections.

Designer Dave Dunning has created a spinning turntable where period scenes of breakfast nook, living room, office, and gym rotate both to accommodate the ever-changing scenes of the couple’s day but also to highlight that this couple’s life is twirling away, going nowhere.  Matthew Antaky’s lighting design accentuates the stark realities of this couple’s life as well as the dreams they both have for something different.  Christine Crook’s costumes combined with Sophia Smith’s wigs and make-up truly are the icing on a cake that portrays an era that tried so hard to look perfect and happy like the paradise that it certainly was not for too many people who turned increasingly to booze and pills to find their own bit of sought-after heaven on earth.

Beautifully performed music by singers and orchestra alike (under the astute and enthusiastic direction of Nicole Paiement) shows off well the impressive, jazz-laced scores of Messieurs Heggie and Bernstein.  The two stories created fifty years apart mold successfully together an ageless storyline in this Opera Parallèle production of two people seeking that lifelong companion who lives so clearly in their dreams but in reality, is not so easy to find.

Rating: 4.5 E

At the Statue of Venus and Trouble in Tahiti continue in joint production by
Opera Parallèle through February 18, 2018 at SFJazz, 201 Franklin Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at

Thursday, February 8, 2018

"Reel to Reel"

Reel to Reel
John Kolvenbach

Will Marchetti & Carla Spindt
What does a marriage of fifty-five years sound like?  Her middle of the night mumbles, snorts, and snores?  His habit of opening a squeaky cabinet ever so slowly to hear each tick?  Her end of day footstep that is “like a sack of flour dropped off a three-inch cliff”?  His upset voice that “sits on the back of his throat and there’s sandpaper run through it.”  Her sigh?  His sigh?

A play that is meant to be heard and not just seen, John Kolvenbach’s Reel to Reel is an aural delight, several laughs every of its eighty minutes, and yes, sigh-producing with its heart-touching story of a marriage so ordinary to be nothing short of extraordinary.  Currently receiving its world premiere at Magic Theatre, Reel to Reel is directed by the playwright himself, capturing the spontaneity and fun of a radio play as the stellar cast of four both portray their parts and also orchestrate dozens of sound effects.  The result is one of the most infectious, inventive, and entertaining Bay Area stage productions of yet this still-young year.

We first meet Maggie and Walter – both at the age of 82 -- in 2050 in a flat that looks untouched in décor or technology since they spent their first night there together in 1995.  Maggie is busy at her desk, meticulously working on the tape of a reel-to-reel player (which even back in 1995 would have been ancient), with Walter commenting, “You’re the last splicer alive.” 

Maggie has spent much of her life cataloguing and labeling the noises around her -- the first being her mother’s washing machine which she still listens to when anxious.  (She even re-recorded a noodle cracking 600 times, just to get it right.)  Along the way, not only has she recorded much of her and Walter’s quirks and quarrels, she secretly recorded as a girl 4144 minutes of her parents’ private moments in their bedroom – all of which she uses now as a stand-up entertainer, Maggie Spoon, in shows where her audience put on airline masks to enjoy her act better. 

(By the way, if I were to go see this show again, I would do the same.  It would be a hoot just to hear without the distraction of sight the fabulous sounds of John Kolvebach’s script and these actors’ verbal and sound effect skills.)

Will Marchetti, Andrew Pastides, Zoë Winters & Carla Spindt
The lives of Maggie and Walter alternate between this fifty-fifth year and their first year, with two sets of older/younger actors rising from their onstage chairs with music stands and scripts (think radio play) where they also slam doors, snap sticks, pop balloons, or swish water in a gallon milk container for a myriad of Maggie’s recorded sounds.  While scenes alternate between these two ages along with the ages of 42 and 80, sometimes the various-aged actors interact with each other, sharing hilarious observations about their partners’ idiosyncrasies from sounds to shapes to smells and filling in each other’s incomplete sentences.

- Maggie 1: “I watched a crease appear, on the side of his mouth, a vertical line, and it would go away and then come back and then it stayed; it held fast.”
- Maggie 2: “I named it.”

- Walter 1: I don’t like to admit it, it gives her too much power, but her calves.”
- Walter 2: “My wife’s calves lower my IQ.”

Such fantastically rich language of the playwright rings forth throughout with other lines like “You smell sometimes like earth that’s been heated and is moist ... A mushroom could grow in how you smell” or “On the side of your ass is a hollow ... it’s shaped like a big contact lens, you could store an ounce of water in there.”  The power of John Kolvenbach’s script is that he has Maggie and Walter say things that most of us would never, ever have the creativity to say but can immediately imagine wanting to have said to someone we love.  The lines are delivered as part of everyday lives whose sounds were recorded and preserved by a technology so out-of-date but somehow so wonderfully fresh and alive – in 2050 ... and even in 2018.

Will Marchetti and Carla Spindt are the older Walter and Maggie, each magnificent in many subtle nuances of portrayal.  Mr. Marchetti’s Walter often speaks with a twinkle in his voice that is so loving and adoring of his Maggie while still acting as if irritated at her inattention while she splices away.  Ms. Spindt’s Maggie is a gentle soul who loves to tease her husband one minute and then act impatient or indignant the next of his constant prodding and questioning, all the time equally returning a sense of love that has aged well over the fifty five years.  (Her Maggie is particularly impressive to watch when she is sitting in on the sidelines, listening intently and reacting to the other Maggie/Walter pair; her expressions are priceless.)

In almost opposite contrast to the older is the younger Maggie, played in award-worthy manner by Zoë Winters.  Her Maggie from the get-go has a sharp edge to her, whether rapidly speaking in paragraphs with hardly a breath or staring forever at Walter while not making a sound or a move.  She is impulsive and impetuous, unpredictable and unbending, determined and devilish.  She is also heads over heels in love with a Walter who at first has no idea who she is or why she wants him.  Ms. Winters is a stand-out in every regard among an ensemble of absolute stars.

Andrew Pastides is also a winner as the younger Walter who often appears as a deer frozen in headlights, particularly as he first meets the invading Maggie (whom by the way shows up uninvited to his apartment even before he knows her name with a suitcase and a reel-to-reel recorder, never to leave again).  He speaks in a manner mild and almost monotone -- except when he first starts freaking out over Maggie’ presence and then over her sudden absence.  He is clearly the younger of Mr. Marchetti’s older Walter, as Walter stays consistent through the years with a sense of half always searching for something lost, half of always knowing he has found it in his Maggie.

The Cast of "Reel to Reel"
Erik Flatmo’s simple yet highly effecting set design establishes the ageless, rather plain apartment that could be in any big city, with huge windows looking out onto nowhere interesting and with the same utensils and clutter from the past fifty years.  The lighting of Wen-Ling Liao provides the bland look appropriate for this apartment while also giving a dreamlike, memory-lane set of shadows and spots.  Meg Neville dresses both Walters in a robe just as comfy and shabby in 1995 as in 2050 and also dresses the Maggies in outfits befitting a woman curious and daring in her youth, sparkling and settled in her twilight.

Magic Theatre, the home of so many world premieres for decades, premieres a Reel to Reel that is destined to have as long or longer life than Maggie’s recording of the washing machine.  This is a play to see, to listen to, again and again.  In my opinion, John Kolvenbach’s Reel to Reel is a ‘must-see’!

Rating: 5 E, MUST SEE

Reel to Reel continues through February 25, 2018 at Fort Mason Center, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at (415) 441-8822.

Photos by Julie Haber

Monday, February 5, 2018

"The Road to Mecca"

The Road to Mecca
Athol Fugard

Diane Tasca & Brianna Mitchell
 Under the sensitive, gentle, and highly intuitive-driven direction of Elizabeth Kruse Craig, Pear Theatre presents a staging of The Road to Mecca that boasts a cast of three that could hardly be more perfect to tell this beautifully moving and yet importantly challenging story of a woman who declares in 1974 South Africa, “The only reason for being alive is my Mecca ... without it, I am nothing.”

For my complete review of this stunning show, please continue to Talkin' Broadway:

Rating: 5 E

The Road to Mecca continues through February 11, 2018 at 1110 LaAvenida, Mountain View.  Tickets are available at or by calling 650-254-1148.

Photo by Michael Craig/Pear Theatre


Terry Johnson

Jim Johnson & Jessica Lea Risco
Terry Johnson’s 1982 play, Insignificance, imagines that in a cheap hotel four people come together for a few short hours – people so universally recognizable that they are only referenced as The Professor, The Senator, The Actress, and The Ballplayer.  Their conversations and confrontations – often intense in words and in physicality -- range from hateful accusations to intellectual explorations to romantic encounters.   The comedy, social commentary, and melodrama of Insignificance receives an engaging treatment in Dragon’s current production, thanks largely to the astute choices of Director Laura Jane Bailey who helps these four celebrities come to life in ways mostly believable and intriguing in a situation quite fantastic and absurd. 

For my full review, please refer to Talkin' Broadway:

Rating: 3.5 E

Insignificance continues through February 18, 2018 at Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway Street, Redwood City.  Tickets are available at or by calling 650-493-2006.

Photo by Dragon Productions Theatre

Saturday, February 3, 2018

"The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria"

The Gondoliers or, The King of Barataria
William S. Gilbert (Lyrics); Arthur Sullivan (Music)

Michael Desnoyers & Samuel Rabinowitz
As the orchestra’s “Overture” spreads notes that prance in joyful processions up and down hills and valleys of light-hearted scales, toes tap and heads nod with the beat.  Beaming smiles throughout the audience indicate that everyone is ready for another Lamplighters Music Theatre gift to the Bay Area to begin.  The sixty-six-year-old company continues its love affair with Gilbert and Sullivan to stage with glorious voice and bubbling enthusiasm the pair’s twelfth operetta of fourteen, The Gondoliers, or The King of Barataria. 

Set in Venice to assuage the Victorian-Age censors of England, The Gondoliers is both light-hearted silliness and a none-too-subtle stab at monarchy rule while  a generous nod to the pursuit of love and marriage.  While missing some of the over-the-top hilarity of earlier works (like the ever-popular Pirates of Penzance or H.M.S. Pinafore), there is still much to elicit at least mild laughter in a topsy-turvy world where two handsome gondoliers suddenly find themselves co-ruling as kings the faraway, island kingdom, Barataria – and doing so as an “everyone’s equal” republic, from shoe-shiners and street sweepers to the monarchs themselves.

On their wedding day in Venice, the gondoliers, Marco and Giuseppe, are suddenly identified by a visiting delegation from Barataria (Duke, Duchess, daughter Castilda, and Don Alhambra, the frightful Grand Inquisitor) as the missing heir apparent of the kingdom.  That is, at least one of them is the crowned prince; but it is unclear at this point which.  It seems that one was whisked away at birth by the Grand Inquisitor after the baby’s royal father became (shudder) a “Wesleyan Methodist” (“of the most bigoted and persecuting type”).  The infant was given to a lowly but kindly gondolier in Venice to rear side-by-side with his own son of the same age.  However, this keeper of the would-be king drank too much and soon forgot which boy was which.  Only the then-attending wet-nurse may now be able to identify the real prince; but until the Inquisitor convinces her to spill the beans (through the “persuasive influence of the torture chamber” if necessary), Marco and Giuseppe are told they must sail to the now king-less Barataria to rule jointly until the rightful one of them can be identified as the new monarch.

Patricia Westley
Not only will the real prince acquire a throne, he will also gain the hand of a wife, the now grown and beautiful Casilda, to whom he was married back in Barataria at the ripe old age of six months. The problem is, both Marco and Giuseppe have just minutes before walked down the aisle to wive peasant girls, Gianetta and Tessa.  Further, Casilda herself, besides being indignant that she was secretly married without out her infant consent, is actually now in love with the Duke’s Attendant, Luiz.  Shocked at their sudden standing as royalty and a little sad they must leave their new wives (but not enough to refuse the fame and possible fortune awaiting one of them), the two former gondoliers and now princes invite all the men of Venice to come with them to become members of their administration, all of course equal with the kings themselves (“Sing high, sing low, wherever they go, they shall all equal be”). 

As the town empties of its men, Gilbert and Sullivan have turned another of their imaginary worlds totally upside down with the wildest and most improbable of stories --  a tall tale told through stage-filling choruses, lovely arias, and echoing duets with many lyrics often sung in alliterations so furiously rapid to make the head spin.  Phil Lowery directs this talented, full-voiced cast of forty-plus clearly with a twinkle in his eye and an ability to keep a brisk-enough flow for the rather long evening of almost three hours (including one intermission).  Music Director Baker Peeples not only ensures musical excellence pervades every one of Sullivan’s never easy-to-sing numbers (difficulty often in direct proportion to how silly the song is itself), but he also conducts with great skill the orchestra of twenty as it sends Sullivan’s score soaring through the atmosphere.  Peter Crompton’s large scenic pieces full of bright colors and bold markings bring a storybook quality to the settings of Venice and Baratoria.  But the scenes, beautifully lit by Brittany Mellerson, truly come to full life due to the delightfully hued peasant and majestically woven royal costumes designed by Judy Jackson. 

To a person, cast members sing with fully expressed ebullience, vocal clarity, and amazing ability to be understood, no matter the lyrical challenges Gilbert throws their ways.  Certain members certainly stand out and deserve a special bow. 

As one of the two peasant brides, Tessa, Whitney Steele time and again wows with a jubilant mezzo-soprano voice that smiles full of its own beauty as she skips through notes lightly and with ease, such as in “When A Merry Maiden Marries.”  Her betrothed and maybe king, Giuseppe (Samuel Rabinowitz), glides with a solid sureness of his fine baritone voice as he rapidly spits out the mad lyrics of “Rising Early in the Morning” in which he describes a typical day as monarch (“Oh the philosophers may sing of the troubles of a King, but of pleasures there are many and or worries there are none”).  The tenor Michael Desnoyers also reigns supreme as Guiseppe’s buddy and co-king whenever his Marco is called upon to voice his views of either being a lover or a ruler, with his voice sliding high into the upper regions with ease and purity. 

F. Lawrence Ewing & Cary Ann Rosko
Two of the best duets of the evening (“O, Rapture” and “There Was a Time”) are delivered by Casilda (Patricia Westley) and her secret lover, Luiz (Patrick Hagen), with the two bringing a beautiful blend of their slightly reverberating, fully expressive voices that separate to highlight individual vocal character and then combine to make the sum even greater than the parts.  Casilda and Luiz earlier join her parents, the Duke and Duchess, in one of the evening’s other highlights as they arrive on Venice’s shores and describe their harried journey (“From the Sunny Spanish Shore”) and their purpose in coming (“In Enterprise of Marital Kind”).  In fact, whenever F. Lawrence Ewing and Cary Ann Rosko enter the scene as the pompous pair of parents, hilarity rises as they call upon their excellent baritone and contralto voices to take on fluttering, comic flairs.

Finally, as the Grand Inquisitor -- sometimes scary but only in a silly sort of way – Charles Martin comes close to stealing the show in “I Stole a Prince” when he sends his lower-toned voice tripping over notes as if he were skipping over rocks in a bubbling stream, rhyming his words with much aplomb and punctuating his message with eyes that round so wide to be like full moons.   His voice rises as if it originated from somewhere in a cavernous, back-throat region.  His head then cocks back with full haughtiness as he sings “There Lived a King” as if he were singing about himself.

While Gilbert and Sullivan may have been winding down their game a bit when they wrote The Gondoliers, there is much to like in what has become one of their more popular operettas, even if it does seem that the story may stretch just a bit too long at times.  Lamplighters certainly has made a great case why its revival is still merited in a production that sparkles with vocal gymnastics as the cast triumphantly conquer murderously difficult lyrics with vocals overall supreme.

Rating: 4 E

The Gondoliers or, The King of Barataria continues at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco through February 4, 2018; at the Lesher Center for the Arts, Walnut Creek, February 9-11; and at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, February 17-18.  Tickets for all performance and venues are available at

Photos by David Allen