Thursday, May 28, 2015

"Heathers: The Musical"



Heathers: The Musical
Laurence O’Keefe Y Kevin Murphy (Book, Music & Lyrics)
Presenting at the Victoria Theatre, San Francisco

Time and again in the past few years, Ray of Light Theatre has produced quirky, exciting, new musicals that most other local theatres probably would not consider offering (Carrie the Musical, Triassic Parq, Yeast Nation, Jerry Springer the Opera); and the company has staged each in increasingly outstanding manner.  Their latest West Coast premiere, Heathers: The Musical (book, music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Kevin Murphy) only further solidifies Ray of Light as a Bay Area leader in musical theatre that is cutting-edge in its willingness to push all sorts of boundaries and is knock-your-socks-off in terms of musical freshness and quality.

Before us is a two-level high school gym with giant, colorful, hanging icons of the teen-cult movie that inspired this musical (Princess phone; school lunch tray with Cheetos, mystery meat, and fries; croquet mallets and balls, and a menacing gun).  Our narrator for the evening, Veronica Sawyer, enters the gym to relate her story, soon surrounded by teens and teachers who blast in rousing style of song and dance the opening Beautiful.  We and Veronica soon realize ‘beautiful’ in this Sherwood, Ohio teen set is as three gorgeous, short-skirted girls all named Heather define it. Anyone not invited into their closed set of friends risks being demeaned, ridiculed, and totally ostracized by the Heathers and their jock and cheerleader entourage.  This high school in fact looks like all of our worst memories of high school.  We quickly recognize the bullying football players, ignored brainy kids, shunned heavy-set girl in the corner along with the slightly weird and the totally ‘cool and in’ sets.  Veronica has sized all this up, too, and realizes the only way to move up in this scene is to reject her nice, scholarly self and go to the dark side of the Heathers.  What she soon realizes, however, there is even a darker side to explore when a strange, handsome JD arrives in black trench coat and stands up immediately to the pushy jocks and taunting Heathers.  Their love at first sight progresses to JD’s leading Veronica down a path that is ever-more dangerous and yet totally for her tempting and even satisfying. 

All of this unfolds amid solos, duets, and total ensembles of rock-style music sung at high decibel with universal clarity, pitch, and pizzazz.  And while the music often highlights the teens’ cruelty to each other as well as their personal insecurities and angst, the bitingly funny lyrics and accompanying jaw-dropping choreography ensure constant smiles and tapping feet on the part of us as audience.   Special hats go off to Alex Rodriguez whose choreography is imaginative, perfectly executed, and totally in step with the 1980s setting.  He shows great ability to use exaggeration, perfect synchronicity, and subtlety to great effect.  Particular kudos go to him and director Erik Scanlon for some slow-motion scenes that are as good as I have seen on a local stage.

Every person in this cast can sing and perform in a style that sells a number and wins high applause.  As Veronica and JD, Jessica Quarles and Jordon Bridges each solo with confidence and maturity.  Together, they create an attraction that can be viscerally felt through piercing eye contact, sweaty kisses, and powerful duets like their appeal to each other just to be Seventeen.  As the Heathers, Jocelyn Pickett, Samantha Rose Cardenas, and Lizzie Moss each bring appropriate haughtiness and swagger as the ruling class of Sherwood High along with individual and collective abilities to belt out and sell through terrific singing and high-kicking dancing.  While each starts as a stereotype that looks much like the others, all find ways to let us watch her Heather develop into a unique and memorable character.  The jocks Kurt and Ram (Paul Hovannes and Nick Quintell) are bullies enough but even more, they are hilarious in their bullying as they sing about such choice subjects as ‘blue balls.’  One of the most touching performances comes from Laura Arthur as the weight-challenged Martha whose kindergarten crush on footballer Ram is recalled movingly in her Kindergarten Boyfriend.

As much as all these and other cast members shine in their individual or small group moments in the spotlight, the most exciting and rousing numbers are the excellent full-chorus productions.  So much is happening on the big stage before us that I wanted to hit the DVR and listen again to the beautiful, full-cast harmonies and to watch once more the fast-paced dance, wild gyrations, and multiple mini-scenes before us.

What make Heathers: The Musical more than just a great concert and funny story are the serious subjects broached, often in very irreverent ways.  Teen suicide, date rape, the drug culture, severe bullying, parents and teachers being totally out-of-touch of what teens really need and want – these difficult subjects and more are laid bare before us, often in ways to cause us to shudder a bit while also laughing (like two previously homophobic dads triumphantly singing “I love my dead, gay son”).  Like Book of Mormon, Heathers: The Musical ventures through mine fields of topics shunned by most musicals and does so with biting hilarity, music that soars, and a production long to be remembered.

Heathers: The Musical continues through June 13 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco.

Rating: 5 E’s

Monday, May 25, 2015

"Hookman"


Hookman
Lauren Yee
In Association with Z Space

The scene opens innocently enough.  Two seventeen-year-old girls, home in California for a holiday break from their respective colleges, banter back and forth driving toward the audience in a skeleton frame of a car as they head to a late-night movie.  Their fast-paced, Twitter-like discourse where neither is often listening that much to the other is hilarious for us as eavesdroppers.  Topics come out of the blue with little rhyme or reason, including some bizarre story one of their mother’s has told her about a one-handed murderer (“Hookman”) at the same time Mom is warning her precious daughter to “be safe” at school.  While both laugh and dismiss the ridiculous tale, there is an uneasiness introduced for them and for us.  Preceded by some strange metallic sounds, all of a sudden events in fact turn bad for the two; and a tragedy strikes in Encore Theatre Company’s (in association with Z Space) Hookman by Lauren Yee that will play out time and again in the remaining hour or so of this world premiere.

Back at her school at UConn, Lexi attempts to rejoin her freshman year and community as if nothing has really happened on that fateful night.  Conversations with roommate, acquaintances, a might-be boyfriend, and dorm R.A. start with the usual college self-centeredness on both parts of the dialogue; and again we in the audience are amused by their attempts to converse thwarted by headphones in ears, crazy ring-toned cell phones, and more interest in eating snacks than in really listening to each other.  But increasingly, each of these interactions between the clearly distraught Lexi and those she meets begins to go places that are at first strange and increasingly creepy and terrifying.  For Lexi and for us, it becomes difficult to discern what is really happening and what is being imagined.  And for her and us, encounters turn into B-rated, slasher-movie scenes where surprises, screams, and blood star.

As Lexi, the young Taylor Jones brings a fresh and engaging approach to her troubled character.  She shows an uncanny ability of quickly alternating between denial of anything being wrong and being paralyzed with fear something huge is wrong, between self-absorption and desperate need for human contact, and between appearing totally normal and clearly being deeply disturbed.  We enter her psyche and shudder with her at the confusion and horror she faces in trying to sort out what happened that night on the dark road with her friend Jess.  Sarah Matthes as that friend Jess bounces all over the rider’s seat in the opening scene car full of exuberance, fun-spirit, and life-is-good.  We watch her quick shudder that something bad may be about to happen; and with Lexi, we remember those moments leading to her demise as they play out again and again before us and in Lexi’s troubled memory.  Each time, Ms. Matthes adds through Lexi’s memory new details, more nuanced looks of horror at her impending doom, and increased clues as to what really happened and why. 

The two central characters are well supported by a cast of teens who each operate in some mixture of reality and Lexi’s disturbed imagination.  Katherine Chin is the cool, detached roommate Yoonji who really wants to help Lexi if that can be done in a couple of minutes before she scampers off to meet other (mostly male) pals.  Ally Roper is the hilarious Chloe whose mile-a-minute, one-sided conversations with Lexi are coupled with jumping-jack-like movements right out of a high impact aerobics class.  Jessica Lynn Carroll, who appears late in the play as a high school door monitor, provides a creepy look at just where Lexi’s mind is taking her.  And finally, Devin O’Brien steps effectively into all the male roles, including the gruesome and reappearing Hookman himself.

Becca Wolff directs this fast-moving, entirely engaging play with seamless ease and hardly a moment’s pause, even between the changes of the cleverly constructed and highly effective scenes of James Faerron.  Supported by realistic sound (Drew Yerys) and just the right lighting touches (Joshua McDermott), everything comes together for an outstanding effect.

In the guise of a teenage slasher comedy, Lauren Yee raises a number of serious questions that stay with audience members long after the fake blood has all been cleared from stage and actors.  What effects does trauma and deep loss really have on us?  How can we discern what is reality versus what appears in our mind’s eye to be very real?  But not leaving us just in this primary realm of exploration, Ms. Yee ventures into other difficult subjects like technology’s increasing effects on meaningful human interaction, the self-centeredness of the millennial generation, and even date rape.  And she broaches these difficult topics while ensuring we are both laughing at this array of late-teens and cringing at the increasing blood and gore.

Like in her recently premiered In a Word (presented by San FranciscoPlayhouse’s Sandbox series and reviewed earlier by TheatreEddys), Ms. Yee leaves it very unclear what is actual and what is imagined in our central protagonist’s mind as she invites us to explore the journey of coming to grips with life’s inevitable tragedies.  Her ability to employ unusual devices to hit her audience in the gut with serious, thought-provoking themes is uncanny and says that she is a young playwright whom we all should follow and eagerly await her next opening.

Rating: 5 E’s

Hookman by Lauren Yee continues through May 30, 2015 at Z Below, 450 Florida Street, San Francisco.  Hookman is a world premiere of Encore Theatre Company in association with Z Space.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Compleat Female Stage Beauty


Compleat Female Stage Beauty
Jeffrey Hatcher
Decker Theatre

A fascinating chapter in theatre history comes to life in Jeffrey Hatcher’s Compleat Female Stage Beauty as we witness the moment when women take to the stage in 1661 Restoration England after a period where all female parts had been only played by men.  Inspired by actual events and people, the story quickly unfolds as the most crowd-popular, male-to-female actor, Edward Kynaston, suddenly finds that a last-minute substitution by a rival theatre of one Margaret Hughes as Desdemona has erupted into wild excitement and the promise of future, sold-out audiences.  As the tide quickly shifts in the eyes of theatre-enthusiast King Charles II concerning the ban against women on stage, Kynaston is particularly distraught since Desdemona is the part he too is currently playing and since this Mrs. Hughes has based her every move and gesture on him, her secret mentor.  This transition in theatre history brings turbulence and tragedy to those like Kynaston whose stars fall overnight; and we follow both his fall and his eventual resurrection as the play progresses.

As staged by New Conservatory Theatre Center, our history lesson, complete with several plays within the play sequences, begins a bit rocky in Act 1 but finds its legs and appeal in Act 2.  Act 1 is largely populated by stock characters that, probably by design and direction, use wild gestures, foppish movements and voices, and other techniques often more akin to the corniest of slapstick comedy.  But the effects are so over done that the reception by the audience tended to be polite at best on Opening Night.  It becomes a bit weary to watch repeated sequences of Desdemona being smothered as she jerkily raises over and again (and again) arms, legs, and body into the sky and then crashes onto her bed.  Likewise, having one or two 17th-century fops on the stage can be lots of fun, but this stage feels too crowded with fops who are so clownish to be less funny and more irritating.  By the time we get to tragic parts of the transition story where enemies of Kynaston conspire to bring him to both stage and physical ruin, the power of the moment loses some of its punch due to our being numbed by the exaggerated acting leading up to the crucial crisis and turning of events.

But in the Second Act, four actors step forward to shine and bring this story depth and more lasting meaning.  While earlier he too over-did a bit of his female gesturing and portrayal, Stephen McFarland as the broken and almost crippled Edward Kynaston in Act 2 is superb in his twisted, emaciated appearance of the wounded (in body and spirit) actor.  He takes us to the brink of demise with achingly slow movements, a hollow face with eyes lost in pain and regret, and a voice that is half whimper, half dead. 

Photograph by Lois Tema
To guide him through his valley of despair to redemption are three women who have gained their own strength, resolve, and maturity during Intermission.  Nell Gwynn (Ali Haas) is one of those stock characters on steroids in Act 1 but becomes a powerful force of the story’s movement and Kynaston’s salvation in Act 2.  Ms. Haas shifts appropriately her mannerisms from a King’s not-too-smart whore to a woman of strength, resolve, and heart.  As Mrs. Hughes, Elissa Beth Stebbins lets us watch the amazing but believable metamorphosis from a silly-acting, unsure neophyte into a more refrained and refined actress – all under the direction and tutelage of her still-mentor, Kynaston.  And throughout, perhaps the performance of the night belongs to Sam Jackson as Maria, Kynaston’s devoted maid and herself a would-be actress.  Amidst much other drama-gone-wild, Ms. Jackson takes a more reserved, skillfully nuanced approach to Maria throughout the play, transferring a secondary role into one that is noticed and appreciated in her crucial, but shadow role in the story. 

What works least well in this 17th Century setting is the choice made for scenic design (Giulio Cesare Perrone).  Three movable, box-like props that become bed, chair, stage or whatever in their various combinations populate the mostly bare stage.  The issue is that they look like what one might find in a modern rehearsal hall.  The early 1660s England would come to mind better with other, still simple, but more suggestive entrapments of the time for the theatres (which were largely barren as they recovered from Cromwell’s ban on live performance).  On the other hand, the costumes of Keri Fitch are very period specific, fun, and appropriately wonderful.

While for me this production of Compleat Female Stage Beauty has a few blemishes, the significance of the story in theatre history, the always-wonderful effects of a play within a play, and the Second Act performances of the key protagonists make this production one worth seeing.

Rating:  3 E’s

Compleat Female Stage Beauty continues in the Decker Theatre, New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco through June 14, 2015.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

"Trouble Cometh"


Trouble Cometh
Richard Dresser

Intense.  Frenetic.  Fun(ny).  Eye-popping.  Richard Dresser’s Trouble Cometh in its world premiere at San Francisco Playhouse delivers this and more in its wham-bam, take-no-prisoners, seventy-five minutes. 

A white-walled, windowless room with a plain worktable and eye-hurting bright lights is maxed out with 30-something testosterone energy as Joe and Dennis sweat to create under strict and short deadline a proposal for a new reality TV show.  Talking (actually mostly shouting) in clipped phrases full of current fad and fashion words and jargon, the two banter, pace, mull, pout, argue, and high-five their way into more and more outlandish ideas to sell to ‘the eleventh floor.’  Kelley, in five-inch stilettos and slinky dresses that belong on a runway, comes in and out of the conference room to take food orders, to relay messages ‘from above,’ or just to raise the room’s testosterone levels even higher with her plunging necklines.  Multiple scenes abruptly end, usually as a new dilemma or a twist in events is introduced.  The stark conference room quickly shifts to a softly lit, high-style bar and back again as part of Nina Ball’s clever scene design.  In the bar, we see Joe propose to the environmentalist activist Sue.  But we also see him and Kelley get it on together at that same bar, different scene.  We then hear back in the conference room that Kelley has spent the evening prior (presumably without sexy dress on) with Joe (who is happily married with kids).  We later witness Kelley and Sue all of a sudden making sparks together, and more, in the bar’s dim lights.  In between, it is back to creating the next big hit show while downing Red Bulls and demanding a bag of Bugles.

As the boss of the creation team, Dennis (Patrick Russell) pushes himself and everyone around him in manic manner in a way that is exhausting and exhilarating to watch.  He is like a drill sergeant one moment yelling commands to whoever is in the room and is in the next a hurt little boy if at all criticized or doubted for all his outlandish claims of past military heroics or market successes.  He is book-ended by Joe (the excellent Kyle Cameron) who plays at first the more mild-mannered, let’s-make-nice guy but who transforms (through Kelly’s coaching) into a dog-eat-dog, let’s-do-this aggressor.  Liz Sklar’s Kelly moves in to become the real mover and shaker of this team; her portrayal of this smart, sophisticated, but over-the-top sexy assistant is super fun to watch.  Marissa Keltie, as Joe’s fiancé Susan, brings an air of mystery, of bored sullenness, and yet a vengeful drive to beat Joe at his own game of “my job is more important and stressful.”  Together with Nandita Shenoy (who enters in later scenes as Vashti, the “11th floor” rep), this ensemble is truly top-notch, well-cast, and expertly directed in all their comings, goings, and inter-scene mixings by May Adrales.

To say any more about this farcical, even absurdist look at our current obsession with reality TV would give away too many clues of what is to come in this fun-filled thriller of a show.  (And by the way, for the surprise to come, clues are sprinkled everywhere; but who has time to look or notice with all the shouting, flirting, and frenzy going on?)  Richard Dresser has created the feeling of being trapped from Sartre’s No Exit in this four-walled workspace, and the parallels increase as the play climaxes.  He also calls to mind the mysterious, uneasy feelings we get in watching Rod Sterling’s Twilight Zone, (I really expected Rod to come out at the end for final commentary).  And there are some Beavis and Butthead aspects of farce as we watch Dennis and Joe push every boundary possible in dreaming up their reality TV show.

In the end, we get creepy feelings that no matter how crazy or absurd reality TV has become, the boundaries between it and our everyday reality are quite porous.  Kardashians become our real-life stars to be followed daily.  A Robert Durst confesses murder while in the bathroom after the taping of The Jinx.  And Joe, Dennis, Kelly, Sue, and Vashti:  Who are they really?  Go see Dresser’s top-notch world premiere, and find out.

The world premiere of Trouble Cometh continues at SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco through June 27, 2015.

Rating: 4 E’s

Monday, May 18, 2015

"Fifth of July"


Fifth of July
Lanford Wilson

An octet of family and long-time friends collect in the small living room literally at the audience’s feet in the intimate setting of the Aurora.  Night has set in on July 4, 1977.  Before twenty-four hours pass, a number of major transitions are going to occur, some more easily and happily than others.  Hopes and relationships rooted in the turbulent but anything-is-possible 1960s have in many cases withered away in Lanford Wilson's Fifth of July.  A useless and horrible war; overuse of pills, pot, and worse; and naïve beliefs that posters, marches, and an occasional Molotov cocktail can awaken a nation have all come home to roost for various ones of our gathered clan.  Each is looking for some new beginning, but on July 4 none is totally sure what that will look like in the end.

Sally Friedman has been storing her beloved husband’s ashes in a Whitman candy box for a year, opening the lid once a day for him to breathe the fresh air of the Lebanon, Missouri countryside near the dock where they once declared their love, 33 years prior.  She is soon to leave her family’s heritage, 19-room house for a retirement center in California (living next to a brother and his wife she has never liked) but must first reluctantly scatter her Matt’s ashes to the earth before flying westward.  Family and friends have come to support and to ensure the task gets done, but some have arrived with other agenda in mind, too.  We slowly discover just how tangled the web of relationships is and how deep are wounds within and among them.  But along with them, we also get to enjoy the happier recollections of those bygone ‘60s and to revel in the enthusiasm and pipe dreams of the new generation, especially as represented by young Shirley Talley.

As thirteen-year-old Shirley, Oceana Ortiz almost steals the show the entire production.  Her every entry is worthy of a close-up camera shot as she reincarnates in Betty Grable style the starlets of the 1940s and 50s, complete with evening wear, swooping gestures, and the overly sophisticated voice of the gentry class.  She delights those on stage and those watching as she fawns, flashes, and faints in ever more drama.  Her dreams of future stardom and greatness are in great contrast to the spent and retread dreams of the older others surrounding her.  She is the Puck who keeps pulling the cynical, quarrelling, and morose individuals out of their funk.  But like the others, young Shirley too will face an important turning point on this 5th of July.

Like the 1960s, our gathering is full of quirk and eclectics.  John Landis (a lanky and impatient John Girot) is married to copper heiress and rising singing star Gwen (Nancy Zoppi) who cannot stop popping and snorting various substances and who is much like an over-grown Shirley in over-blown dramatics and dreaming.  John was and is still entangled in ways to be discovered with a brother and sister pair, Kenneth and June Talley.  A Vietnam War veteran and now crippled after losing his legs, Kenneth (the very convincing Craig Marker) lives with his lover Jed Jenkins (Josh Schell), a master-degreed horticulturist who is the most grounded of all this clan.  June is a former left-wing activist and troublemaker who now must figure out if and how to be Shirley’s mom.  And somewhere in orbit around them all is Gwen’s band member Weston (Harold Pierce) who is tripping around and looking for UFOs in the Missouri sky. 

With such a group, a lot can happen; and a lot does.  But along the way, each member confronts new realities of his/her 1977, makes important decisions, and resolves one way or another issues that have simmered for years and in some cases boiled over in front of us all.  In the end, they each eave with new resolve; and we leave having been touched by their emotional and impacting awakenings and transformations.

Fifth of July has now closed at the Aurora Theater, having run April 17-May 17, 2015.

Rating: 5 E

"One Man, Two Guvnors"


One Man, Two Guvnors
Richard Bean
(Based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni
With songs by Grant Olding)
Roda Theatre, Berkeley

Even from the lobby of Berkeley’s Roda Theatre, delightful, fun-sounding music from some unseen band fills the air as we enter to see Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors.  Once inside the auditorium, we see audience members rhythmically clapping and half-dancing to their seats as four musicians play and sing in full force in a curious mash of country, bluegrass, rock, and Celtic sounds (complete with a washboard-and-bell percussionist).  Before us a brightly colored collage of British symbols and caricatures on a yellow curtain, the stage is clearly set for an afternoon of fun.  That is further highlighted by the entrance of locally-favorite Danny Scheie who bombastically greets us with the usual warnings about phones, cameras, and exits but does so in a manner to leave us all in total stitches of laughter.

Having seen in 2013 this previous London and New York mega-hit, I was skeptical how funny all the exaggerated antics of this big cast of commedia stock characters would once again be for me.  The jokes are often grade-school silly to the point of being groaners, and some are repeated ad nauseam every time a character speaks.  Some of the characters are stereotyped (like a vacuous, “I don’t understand” blonde or the mimic references to a supposedly gay mobster) in ways that feel no longer that funny in 2015.  But as soon as Dan Donohue stumbles onto the stage with his rubbery-loose body suddenly to find himself as Francis Henshall, the servant of two ‘guvnors,’ it is clear this will definitely be a triumphant undertaking. 

Summarizing the plot of a farce like One Man, Two Guvnors is mostly impossible and actually unnecessary.  The twists and turns are countless; and the plot plays second fiddle to all the slapstick falls, the crazy chases, the closing/opening doors, the flung food, and the inevitable audience members becoming full-cast members.  But to set the scene, an arranged marriage between the ditsy daughter (Pauline) of a mob boss (Charlie the Duck) and an overly dramatic thespian son (Alan) of Charlie’s sleazy solicitor (Harry, whom we hear a dozen times got the Mau Mau off clean) is set awry by the appearance of Pauline’s would-be gangster fiancé, whom everyone thought was murdered.  Turns out, he was and the newly arrived to-be-husband is the dead man’s twin sister in disguise (Rachel dressed as Roscoe).  Pauline’s true love (Stanley) and Rachel/Roscoe both are in need of a servant to move into a local pub their over-sized trunks (identical of course), to iron their clothes, and to go get important letters from the post office.  And so enters Francis Henshall; and the true fun, as mentioned earlier, really begins.

Dan Donohue as Francis truly commands the stage every time he appears.  What he does with every inch of his body in moves and positions that defy description is phenomenal and gut-splittingly funny.  We marvel as he uses every possible manner of ridiculous bodily ploys to move Stanley’s over-sized trunk.  We howl as he serves a multi-course meal to two impatient, demanding masters who are dining in two rooms (behind closed doors that loudly and repeatedly slam, of course) and serves most of the meal to himself via his mouth, pockets, and a bowl held by a woman plucked from the audience (herself a whole act of hilarity not to be missed).  Even with all the clowning, we come to care for and root for this Charlie Chaplin guy before us, especially as he falls in love (in between all his serving and swerving) with the feminist-leaning, but also funny and sexually-craved bookkeeper Dolly (straight-laced Claire Warden who melts into love-sick puddles around Stanley). 

Each of the large cast draws many laughs through individual antics (like the repeated, stop-action moments Brad Culver takes in the spotlight as the would-be actor Alan who quotes from almost every iconic stage hero you can possibly name).  But standing applause must go to Danny Sheie and Ron Campbell as the waiters Gareth and Alfie who combo with Dan Donohue’s Francis to serve up the most outrageous, over-the-top lunch imaginable.  With food and bodies both flying through the air, the scene gets crazier and more outlandish with each passing course.

Interspersed through the scenes are reappearances of the opening band, often with cameo solos by another cast member on such instruments as beeping horns and xylophone.   Grant Olding’s music moves from First Act skiffle (blended, mixed-genre tunes popular in post-war England) to Second Act harmonies and lyrics that have more than passing familiarities with the British boy bands of the 60s.  Positioned on both sides upstage, the band becomes a vital part of the fun and frolic.

No great morals, insights or meanings emerge from One Man, Two Govnors.  What does emerge is an audience with aching jaws and sides, exhausted from laughing.

One Man, Two Guvnors continues in the Roda Theatre of Berkeley Repertory Theatre through June 21, 2015.

Rating: 5 E’s

"Talley's Folly"


Talley’s Folly
Lanford Wilson
Harry’s Upstage Theatre

Walking in to visit an old friend not seen in years, I always wonder if our reunion will be as good as I remember our first meeting.  Such is my feeling as I enter the small, intimate Harry’s Upstage at the Aurora and see the somewhat familiar “folly” before me – a latticed, gazebo-looking boat landing complete with row boat, river grass, and lots of oars, floats and fishing gear hanging on its feeble walls.  It has been about twenty years since I first met Lanford Wilson’s much-performed, universally loved Talley’s Folly, and I wonder if the warm glows it still elicits through my memory bank will be reinforced tonight.

As soon as the bearded actor in full suit and tie walks down the aisle, breaks the fourth wall, and begins addressing the audience as if we were old friends, I am ready for him to take us to that 1944 evening in Lebanon, Missouri.  As he meticulously sets the scene of dappled moonlight, frogs croaking, water-lapping at dock’s edge, and far-off band playing (and in fact he does so twice in a masterfully executed prologue to the evening), I am so reminded of another opening of a personal favorite (the Stage Manager of Our Town).  I am now even more ready to be drawn into this story that feels so familiar yet is so particular to the time and place of Second World War, small-town America.  We are told tonight will be like a waltz; and as the actor directs the lazy symphony of croaks, barks, and crickets to commence and the lights to soften, the dance between two would-be lovers begins.

The Jewish, European-accented accountant Matt Friedman has arrived from St. Louis to pursue the hand of the red-haired, goyish nurse’s aide, Sally Talley, who still lives (reluctantly, we discover) with her small-town, factory-owing family.  It seems that Matt has already presented himself to her family and has been chased out of the house by Sally’s ‘Communist-hating’ brother (who also does not want a Jew hanging around) holding a two-barreled shotgun.  She meets him in this now-dilapidated folly built in an earlier century by her ancestor, full of supposed fury for his showing up here instead of at her clinic and for his coming back after a year’s absence from their first and only week together.  His almost daily letters to her have made no impression (or so she says); and the more Matt tries to convince her of his sincerity of devotion and desire, the more she resists – except when his humor and awkward mishaps (like falling through the rotting floor or pulling down a loose shelf onto his head) bring her guard down just enough for us – and him – to suspect she ‘doth protest too much.’  As the conversations ebb and flow, the dance of the two also proceeds, not always as a waltz but sometimes as an angry tango, a sexy cha-cha-cha, or a rambunctious lindy.  But when the two ease into the moment and allow truthful revelations of past histories to spill forth, the waltz reappears as a beautiful cadence of emerging love.

What makes this Folley truly memorable are the performances of our Matt and Sally.  Rolf Saxon commands attention from his first venture beyond the fourth wall as he engages us early on before stepping into the story.  He is interesting in his somewhat foreign and sophisticated (to this small town and to 1944 America) manners.  His boyish pursuits of love are awkward and sometimes silly and are totally not what one would expect of a 42-year-old accountant.  We are quickly sold on his sincerity and are surely all cheering him on as he trips, flops, and flings his way from one corner of the small dock house to the other, trying to get and keep the attention of the very coy, often annoyed Sally. 

Lauren English equally matches Mr. Saxon’s comeuppance with her own reserved yet defiant stance as she tries to persuade him to leave the property at once before her anti-Semantic brother arrives.  Yet, we see in her shining eyes and in the up-turned corners of her mouth that her words do not really match her heart; and we suspect that she really wants to be won over.  Tears of frustration with her small-town, gossip-filled life and her narrow-minded family often well in her eyes.  From our vantage only a few feet away in this small venue, we experience viscerally the anguish of a secret that somehow haunts and constrains Ms. English’s Sally.  As her muscles tighten and relax beneath the new dress Sally has bought for the evening’s encounter, we can see a struggle and feel a compassion that are felt deep within.

We are drawn into this dance of our two would-be lovers by the skilled and sensitive performances of two actors who also know just when to crack a smile, laugh at their own uptightness, and sigh with the wonder of the evening and each other.  Much credit must also go to the astute direction of Joy Carlin.  She orchestrates the moves of her two actors through every inch of this small, confined corner of Lebanon, Missouri and knows just when to shift moods and modes so to keep us as well as Sally and Matt fully engaged and on track.

On the surface, this is a beautiful love story.  In its undercurrents flow issues America was and was not dealing with in 1942:  anti-Semitism, class divisions, sexism, fear of the immigrant.  A 25-year-old play of an almost 75-year-old story is unfortunately still very current but also fortunately still very touching and heart-warming.

Rating:  4 E’s

Talley’s Folly continues at Berkeley’s Aurora Theatre (Harry’s Upstage) through June 7, 2015.

"Oh No There's Men On The Land"


Oh No There’s Men On The Land
Karen S. Ripley
The Marsh Cabaret, Berkeley

As my husband and I settled into our seats and table in the intimate, cozy Cabaret of the Berkeley Marsh for the 5 p.m. show, we soon started to feel a bit uneasy as we realized that we were the only two men in a room of women, many of whom clearly knew each other and most of whom appeared to be possible warriors of past feminist and lesbian freedom-rights battles.  As the title of the show began to hit home (Oh No There’s Men On The Land), I began to imagine that we two males might soon become the butts of jokes and jeers since I was sure we stuck out in this sea of sisterhood.  While still pondering if we should duck next door to The Feisty Jew (where at least we would likely be among members of our tribe), the lights went down and an older, grandmother-like woman trudged to the stage.  What I noticed first was her face:  A huge smile of welcome and twinkling eyes of mischief nestled among furrows and puffed cheeks that spoke of a lifetime of adventures and stories.  In two minutes, we were laughing with gusto along with our fellow Baby Boomers, relishing and remembering as if we in fact belonged here … and of course, we did belong.

Karen Ripley’s solo Oh No There’s Men On the Land begins on the day Dr. King is assassinated.  That event somehow wakes up her teenaged self that it is time to come clean to her extended, Berkeley family. She takes us to her family living room where in 1968 she announces to the gathered clan, “Uh, I just wanted to tell you I’m gay.”  As she will during the entire show, she one-by-one becomes each of the others in that room that day, leaving us in stitches as she mimics their various reactions to her proclamation.  Where Ripley (as she calls herself) really hooks us while recalling her journey as a ‘baby dyke’ (her term) is that she paper-clips to the pages of her life story concurring events we all vividly remember, each accompanied by the appropriate Top 40 music of the day:  Nixon’s resignation, Elvis’ death, Harvey’s election, the first Chronicle headline of a mysterious disease killing scores of young men.  We are with her as we too recall where we were, whom we were with, and the music we were listening to as we accompany her on her travels of the late ‘60s to early ‘80s.  For this crowd, she further punctuates her story with iconic lesbian hangouts and bars (the Brick Hut, Ollie’s, Amelia’s) of the East Bay; and each mention brings howls, ‘yeses,’ and raised hands of appreciative applause.

Ripley’s stories are full of incredible characters right out of the best of yellowed, much-read paperbacks.  The one-eyed Cricket advises and regales Ripley with stories, as Ripley unexpectedly finds herself in the ‘70s driving a busload of feminine festival-goers through the woods and hills of Midwest wild lands.  Among others she brings in both caricature and love to the stage, we meet a wild, leather-wearing wooer; her half dozen co-owners of a greasy diner (all lesbians except for one dorky straight guy); and a sweet-singing partner of her two-person, traveling band.  Each tale brings loads of laughs and a genuine admiration for this woman before us who clearly helped write the passages of East Bay lesbian and feminist history just by being hard-working, persistent, daring, and -- of course -- talented in such diverse areas as dish-washing, drumming, and stand-up comedy.  Ripley coughs, snorts, chuckles, scratches, and stomps through story after story; and we are all like lap puppies, wanting more and more of her regaling and attention to the details of those days gone by we believe we now so well too remember (even if we don’t).

All too soon, this seventy-minute romp comes to an end, just as the AIDS demon appears.  In the most touching moment of the evening, Ripley describes peering through the stage curtains at a 1983 audience of too-thin, hollow-eyed, skin-blotched gay men just before walking out to entertain them with her one-liners and raunchy humor.  As she gasps in horror, we gasp in memory.  But as she boldly steps into the spotlight and starts doing what she does best, no matter the audience, we -- like surely those now-angels did over 30 years ago – bust a gut laughing and loving us some Ripley. 

Oh No There’s Men On the Land plays Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 5 p.m. through May 30 at the Marsh Cabaret in Berkeley.

Rating: 5 E’s

Friday, May 15, 2015

"Where's Charley?"


Where’s Charley?
Frank Loesser (Music & Lyrics); George Abbott (Book)
42nd Street Moon
Eureka Theatre, San Francisco

There is something about a man cross-dressing as a woman that has left audiences howling in laughter through the ages, from Falstaff to Daphne & Josephine to Mrs. Doubtfire and Tootsie.  Surely one of the all-time favorites of audiences the world over is the college graduate Charley Wykeham dressed as his visiting, matronly aunt from Brazil in Brandon Thomas’ 1892 play, Charley’s Aunt, still in revival almost continuously on some London stage and on thousands of other high school-to-professional stages worldwide.  Among the many adaptations in dozens of languages is the 1947 Broadway hit musical Where’s Charley?, now being revived in a hilarious, very well sung and -danced production by 42nd Street Moon.  As was attested the evening I attended at the intimate Eureka Theatre, even in San Francisco where drag- and cross-dressing are a daily scene on any sidewalk and many clubs, seeing Charley costumed, cavort, and snort as his old, rich aunt is enough to send the audience into convulsive spasms.

The storyline is simple, outlandish, and perfect for an evening of fun and frolic.  Charley and his college buddy Jack are in love with Amy and Kitty and want to spend the afternoon with them.  But in 1890s England, that is impossible without a proper chaperon, especially when there is a persistently present uncle and guardian of the two young ladies who is determined that the blossoming love will wither and die (so that he can then keep control of his niece’s willed fortune).   A millionaire aunt is to arrive from Brazil for Charley’s graduation who can well serve as the overseer of the afternoon’s wooing; but her arrival is delayed, the girls arrive for tea, and Jack convinces a rather reluctant Charley to dress as his aunt.  As Charley bounces back and forth between himself and the ‘aunt;’ as the obnoxious uncle and Jack’s visiting father both begin to pursue the love of the wigged, rather homely ‘aunt;’ and as the real aunt arrives in the midst of the charades and shenanigans, slapstick and hilarity ensue.

As Charley, Keith Pinto at first fights being forced to dress and act the part of his aunt, pawing at his stuffed dress, flinging on and off his wigged curls, and generally stomping about the stage in very unladylike manner.  But when the young women adore him as Charley’s matronly aunt (and are willing to kiss his cheeks and put their heads on his shoulders) and when the uncle/guardian Mr. Spettigue hungrily chases him as the rich aunt with ever-growing bouquets of flowers, he takes on with vigor all the roles of a consoling, flirting, and eccentric matron with increasing ease and hilarity.  Mr. Pinto also sings the musical’s signature “Once in Love with Amy” in a show-stopping, heart-throb manner, complete with an extended soft-shoe routine that gets the night’s loudest and longest ovation.

Charley’s love focus, Amy Spettigue (Abby Sammons) also takes full command of the stage in a show-of-force “The Woman in His Room.”  In beautiful voice, she first pines how she really can trust her sweet Charley (who keeps disappearing every time his ‘aunt’ appears) but then switches into a manic and hilarious rant and rave as she suspects his repeated absences are due to a ‘rendezvous’ with some beautiful rival.  This back-and-forth “I love him,” “I detest him” number is a highlight and a ‘best featured actress’ kind of number for Ms. Sammons.

While much of the music of Loesser’s first Broadway outing is not that memorable, its ballads and love duets are ably performed by this well-voiced cast.  Charley and Amy come together for a touching “Make Me a Miracle.”  James Bock and Jennifer Mitchell both dance and sing beautifully “My Darling, My Darling.”  And the ever-wonderful and talented Stephanie Rhoads (a 42nd Street perennial favorite) teams with John-Elliott Kirk as the real Aunt Dona Lucia D’Alvadorez reunites with an old flame, Sir Francis Chesney in one of the evening’s loveliest numbers, “Lovelier than Ever.” 

A special shout-out also goes to Noelani Neal, Katherine Leyva, and Maria Mikheyenko who trio together in “The Gossips” as three ingénues who take time from dressing for the evening’s ball to spill the beans to each other on what they know (or think they know) about the goings-on around them.  In exaggerated movements and antics, each gets a turn to sing forth the secrets she has acquired (of course, only after saying she cannot in any way share them).

The one downside of the evening’s overall musical prowess is the inability of the high sopranos to blend in with the rest of the talented chorus members.  Time and again, one or two voices shrill a bit too much above everyone else, causing otherwise finely performed numbers to have an unwelcomed edge to them.  But overall, the big numbers are fun and well choreographed (Nancy Dobbs Owen).  And while the scenery and set seems even more sparse than has been seen of late on 42nd stages, the costuming is once again superb and puts us automatically into late 19th-Century, upper-society England thanks to Rebecca Valentino’s designs.

All in all, this is not a show that I left humming many numbers; but I did leave still smiling and even chuckling as I was once again recalled how funny it is when a man dresses as a woman and everyone around him reacts in such naïve and outrageous ways.

Where’s Charley continues at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, through Sunday, May 17.

Rating: 4 E’s

Sunday, May 10, 2015

"The River Bride"


The River Bride
Marisela Trevino Orta

A fairy tale is supposed to have an air of magic, a sense of mystery, and a promise of “happily ever after.”  Certainly Marisela Trevino Orta’s The River Bride, as directed by Aldo Billingslea and presented by students of Santa Clara University’s Department of Theatre & Dance, meets these criteria and more.  From the opening moments of this fantasy’s dock-side setting in the jungles of the Brazilian Amazon, we are surrounded by mystical sounds of tropical birds, lapping water, and chattering river dolphins (thanks to the expert sound design of David Sword).  We are soon introduced to an old wives’ legend of the Boto, dolphins who emerge on shore once a year for three days to find true love, acceptance of instant marriage, and thus a release from a life of underwater roaming through life alone.  And we begin to suspect that Botos, former and current, are among those we are meeting as the Costa family prepares for the marriage (in three days, of course) of one of its two beautiful daughters. 

As the bride-to-be, Belmira opens our tale by throwing her father’s fish bait to a chirping dolphin, expressing her excitement for a marriage to childhood friend Duarte, whom she is sure will help her escape this remote village for the exciting life of the city.  Belmira is the center of her own universe and believes even the sky’s lightning is “announcing my wedding with a drum roll all of Brazil can hear.”  She is a plotter and a manipulator who will do anything to ensure the desired escape from this poor fishing village, including moving in and taking over any beau who approaches her sister Helena.  As Belmira, Taneisha Figueroa excels in every respect from her sarcastic smirks and voice, to haughty flips of head and hair, and unashamed pushing her sister aside in order to hone in and take over a conversation.  Even though she has spent years winning Helena’s first love, Duarte, she begins to envy even on her wedding eve the wooing of her sister by a handsome, well-dressed stranger whom her father and Duarte have rescued from the river, appropriately named Moises (like the Biblical Moses, “drawn from the water”).  The more Helena (portrayed in a sophisticated, reserved, but still sensual manner by Sonya Venugopal) begins to fall in love with the family’s guest Moises (soft-spoken Elahdio Aliaga who in his white suit, Panama hat, and bandana-wrapped forehead is both angelic and sexy as hell), the more Belmira slinks and smiles her way into their moments together, even as her wedding hour approaches.

Aldo Billingslea achieves the relaxed, rhythmic feeling of the Amazon region with a pace that is never rushed but always flowing forward with purpose.  When the fishing father and the fiancé Duarte take to the water, they do so with no visible boat but instead with coordinated bodies serving as the oars that move them through the invisible, but audible waves.  Combined with the free-flowing, loosely wrapped costumes of Patt Ness, we are lured into believing that the family’s chatter and teasing of each other, the planning of the Belmira’s and Duarte’s wedding, and the emerging love between Helena and Moises will lead in the end to a happiness that mirrors what we see in the love between the sisters’ father and mother.  But as storm clouds, thunder, and very strange lightning of multiple colors erupt the peaceful setting, we also realize that this fairy tale may be grimmer than we had earlier supposed.

What makes this play particularly wonderful is the beauty of the words each character brings to the tale.  Sticking his toes into the river is described by Moises as “submerging into the heartbeat of a continent.”  In remembering a time before life with his wife, Sr. Costa says, “I was an ache as long as this river.”  And of true love, Sra. Costa tells her daughters, “Words are good for a lot of things, but Love lives in a place deep inside where there are not words.”  Poet-turned-playwright Orta brings a stunning, musical quality to her dialogue that appreciates a director’s pace that allows the audience moments to savor such astonishing phrases.

Clearly the young actors of this university-level production have blossomed in their roles through the luxury of many more weeks of study and rehearsal together than usually afforded their counterparts on most Bay Area stages.  Their nuanced portrayals speak of the excellent tutelage by Professor and Director Billingslea and are a reminder to us all to take advantage of our local, university theatre venues for evenings of true magic.

The real happy ending of The River Bride, 2013 co-winner of the National Latino Playwriting Award, is that it will receive its official world premiere and be enjoyed by thousands of theatre patrons during Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2016 season.  For Marisela Trevino Orta, that must be a fairy tale come true.

Rating: 4 E’s

Monday, May 4, 2015

"Colossal"


“Colossal”
Andrew Hinderaker

It is 2 p.m., and the lobby-waiting audience finally begins its descent into the lower-floor theatre for the afternoon’s matinee.  Reverberating ever more loudly are the beats and crashes of drums and cymbals.  As we turn the corner at stair’s end, we make our way around the end zone of an artificial-turf football field into theatre seats arrayed as a stadium.  On the field, fully padded, muscular players go through pre-game-like stretches, push-ups, and drills over the watchful eye of a whistle-blowing, barking coach while a fervent drum-line marches in formation around and amongst the pounding and puffing, already sweaty footballers.  Across the field is a lighted scoreboard ticking off the minutes to the start of game and play as sidewalk passers-by on the other side of the full-window wall behind it peer in with curious expressions.  Dodging band and ball players is a lone, fifty-something ballet dancer doing his own one-man show completely oblivious of the others; and they, of him.  And thus it goes for the full fifteen-minute countdown when at horn’s blow, windows suddenly are shaded; lights, extinguished; and on-field action, halted.

As if it were not already obvious from this pre-play skirmish why Andrew Hinderaker chose to title his 5-city, rolling premiere play Colossal, the next four fifteen-minute quarters of game and play were about to reveal many reasons.  On this simulated gridiron with eleven very authentic, college football hunks; a working scoreboard; and an incredibly talented and precision-marching quartet of percussionists, we are about to witness a play that tackles multiple, complicated topics.  In rapid succession our players lay out big questions that they and we must wrestle:  America’s favorite passion and sport and the life-altering injuries it is causing to our heroes on the field; rampant homophobia and gay-bashing among men who alternate between resembling playful boys and fierce rivals in their own relationships; sometimes complicated dynamics of interracial friendship and love; and parental hopes that unmet escalate into explosions between fathers and sons.  Add in a football team that transforms in front of us into a fully accomplished modern dance troupe, an actor who plays a paraplegic part on stage that is real-life for him on a day-to-day basis, and a story that grips our souls and attention from beginning kick-off to the end; and Colossal is surely the only title this amazing world premiere could have.

Rolling onto and all about the field in his powered wheelchair, Mike uses his remote control to start, stop, reverse and spot focus the football play and action around him.  He soon halts a dramatic, flying leap by one player as he dives over the heads of defenders.  That player leaves the frozen scene, comes over to Mike, and begins a banter that will continue off and on for the next four quarters of our play.  We soon discover that the footballer is Young Mike prior to a tragic injury three years earlier.  Young Mike encourages our chair-bound Mike to relive in his memory the glory of his starring past; Mike directs Young Mike to replay both fun and difficult moments, going as far back as when he announced to his shocked and soon-furious dad (himself leader of his own dance company) that he was foregoing all his years of studio training for the gridiron.  Now living with his Dad, Mike is resentful of every attempt his Dad makes to help ease his day-to-day struggles.  With his psychology-trained physical therapist, he works half-diligently to recover some use of limp limbs and muscles while dodging attempts to open up and share his inner turmoil with the counselor.  Starts and stops of memories flash in his mind’s eye and on the stage before us; and an air of mystery builds exactly why Mike is so reluctant to restart his life.  The climax will as a pas de deux that is breath-taking and heart-touching.

Zack Weinstein as the chair-bound Mike gives a performance that soars in every respect.  We visibly experience close-hand his mental and physical pain as he struggles through very real rehabilitation exercises with his always encouraging yet persistently demanding therapist/counselor Jerry (Steven Michael Walters).  We smile, laugh, and sigh as he remembers scenes of field, gym, and shower purposeful bumping, tumbling, and touching with more than just a passing coincidence his darkly handsome co-captain Marcus as well as their hotel-room first night of passionate encounter.  Our hearts extend to his devoted father/companion (the able actor and dancer Joel Ferrell) as he repeatedly is rejected by a son who so clearly just wants to be hugged and to hug but who cannot yet let go of his need to be as independent and strong as he once was.  And we are continually intrigued by the egging of his alter, younger self (Alex Stoll) to replay and keep alive the glories of his past self and to avoid at all costs reliving the awful moments and truths of his life-impacting injury.  The depth of performance of each of these actors is matched by the hard-hitting, sweating football squad who are called on over and again to replay bits and pieces of the past and who also transform with full grace and dignity into a dreamlike ballet that allows surprising parallels to be drawn between two seemingly disparate worlds (football and ballet).

As Colossal continues to march across America in its rolling premiere (next at Company One Theatre in Boston July 12 - August 15, 2015), it has been accompanied this spring by two other world premiere plays in Berkeley and Los Angeles also dealing with life-threatening and life-ending injuries connected with football:  X’s and O’s (A Football Love Story by KJ Sanchez and Jenny Mercein at Berkeley Repertory Company – reviewed in an earlier post in Theatre Eddys) and Clutch by Shannon Miller at SkyPilot Theatre Company.  These three timely and important plays are compared in a recent article of American Theatre that is well worth a read (http://www.americantheatre.org/2015/01/27/football-dramas-that-love-the-players-question-the-game/). 

Theatre is at its best when we as audience leave touched in our hearts, challenged in our assumptions, and stimulated to continue the conversation and even to act on what we have learned.  Colossal delves into several current issues of football while also exploring our stereotypes of the players themselves as well as how we tend to see and treat those different from us by race, sexual orientation, or physical abilities.  In the end though, this is really a story about bravery, forgiveness, and the love of a father and son; and it is at those levels that the story leaves its lasting mark in the audience-goer’s soul.

Rating:  5 E’s