Thursday, March 31, 2016

"Buyer and Cellar"


Buyer and Cellar
Jonathan Tolins

J. Conrad Frank
It all begins with a whole slew of animated disclaimers.  What we are about to hear is “all fiction,” that “I am just an actor.”  (But the part about the fake shopping mall under her house, all true as outlined in her one published book, My Passion for Design.)  With flashing hands, he admits sheepishly, “I was never that big of a Barbra queen” (although he does admit she was “part of my birthright, my heritage.”)  He is quick to add that there will be no impersonating the Great One by him in this show tonight.  “Enough people do her – even some women – so you don’t need me to.”  But of course, “When I tell you about the conversations we had – which never really took place – I’ll just be her, and you can fill in the rest.”  And actually, the audience of the intimate Walker Theatre of the New Conservatory Theatre Center has to fill in very little because for the next ninety minutes, J. Conrad Frank will hold court front and center in his non-stop, rapid-fire version of Jonathan Tolins’ Broadway and touring hit, Buyer and Cellar. 

Since there is only one Barbra who dropped that middle “a,” we all know of whom he speaks in his disclaimers, this Alex Moore (aka as J. Conrad Frank).  Alex has just been fired from Disneyland’s Toontown for an obscene remark made to an obnoxious rug rat.  Through a connection (which any one who is any one in SoCal always has plenty of), he lands a mysterious job at a Malibu Beach mansion that looks like it should be in the middle of picturesque, rural Connecticut.  Only this one, it turns out, has a full shopping mall in the basement, full of the souvenirs, costumes, and tchotchkes collected in a lifetime of stardom by its one and only customer, Barbra Streisand. 

Alex is hired to be the one and only keeper of its many shops (dress, antique, yogurt, Bea’s Dolls, etc.).  And as his new best friends, we get to hear all the many details of his mostly boring days dusting the dolls and rearranging the loaded counters – days that are occasionally punctuated by visits from this one shopper who will just show up, often humming as she descends the stairs.  “And, man, can that lady hum,” he tell us with excited eyes that somehow connect directly with each and every one of us, all now leaning forward in our seats to catch every delicious detail of his totally fictitious encounter with Barbra.

J. Conrad Frank
Mr. Frank’s Alex is so easy to like immediately, and soon he becomes our new best friend.  He sparkles when excited, tantalizes when about to tell a new secret, and melts to a state of endearing vulnerability when crushed by disappointment.  (He can even improvise splendidly as he did after one sudden sneeze when his Alex turns to us with a flip of his wrist and a “’Scuse me, but it’s really dusty down here” before jumping right back into his story-telling.)

Alex also quickly transforms into the Hyde of his Jekyll when his increasingly cynical (and more than just a little jealous) boyfriend, Barry, enters the after-work scene with him back at their apartment.  Struggling screenwriter Barry is a total expert on Barbra (just ask him), and he loves using his edgy voice in pooh-poohing and casting shadows on every new adoration Alex brings to his nightly attention.  That Alex is beginning to talk of her as his ‘friend’ only infuriates the now-screaming Barry even more.

Back at the mansion’s shops, our now-experienced sales clerk can also become when needed the distant, always-keeping-her-eye-on-him house manager, Sharon, or the dreamy-voiced, hey-I’m-your-pal (briefly) James Brolin, present husband and manager of Alex’s prime customer.  But it is when Alex becomes his version of Barbra herself (yes, he does in fact impersonate her, no matter what he said up front) that Mr. Frank particularly shines.  With a left forefinger always flipping the bang falling over her brow and with lips that pucker, eyes that can cross for effect, and extended fingers whose famously long nails are almost detectable, his Barbra is never meant to make fun in any malicious manner.  Instead, she is Alex’s (and probably J. Conrad Frank’s) way of showing complete love and admiration for a unique brand of quirkiness millions adore about her.

One of the joys of Mr. Tolin’s script and Mr. Frank’s delivery (as Alex, Barbra, and Barry) is the constant name-dropping of stars from long ago and last week as well as references to both obscure (“The Mirror with Two Faces”) and well-known (“Funny Girl”) movies and shows.  At the mention of each, reactions from the audience become like random popping of Chinese New Year fire-crackers, as first this one and then another get the connection that many of the rest of us have no idea but then, don’t really care because it is all so fascinating to listen to.

J. Conrad Frank
Devin Kasper has created a stunning yet simple setting on the small flat stage just a few feet from the first row.  Most of the shops’ details are left to our imaginations based on Alex’s detailed, chatty descriptions.  An elegant divan, a plush rug, and a dress form stand (that will have a big dancing role at one point) are engulfed overhead by a series of hollow picture frames of all shapes that climb on a diagonal across the back stage.  To make the set really pop and to establish a basement mall setting, Keira Sullivan has created a fantastic and ever-shifting lighting design.  Applause must also go to the exquisite timing, quality, and light-heartedness of Sara Witsch’s sound design.  While Mr. Frank brings much innate talent and ingenuity to all his characters’ constantly changing expressions and voices, clearly he has been directed with great skill by Rebecca Longworth.

Taking on the role made famous to every gay man (and even other folks not gay) who saw Michael Urie star in the original, J. Conrad Frank excels in tour de force fashion in this outstandingly fun and funny Buyer and Cellar at New Conservatory Theatre Center.  Do not be kept away by having seen the show two years ago at the Curran.  In the intimate Walker of NCTC, this Alex is not to be missed!

Rating: 5 E

Buyer and Cellar continues through April 24, 2016 on the Walker Stage of New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at http://www.nctcsf.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos Credit:  Lois Tema


Tuesday, March 29, 2016

"Too Much, Too Much, Too Many"


  Too Much, Too Much, Too Many
Meghan Kennedy

Mary Price Moore & Kelly Battcher
Presented with just the right mix of smiles and tears, silliness and seriousness, bittersweet and bitterness, Dragon Productions Theatre Company has assembled four outstandingly cast actors in a staging of the Off Broadway, 2013 Roundabout Underground premiere of Too Much, Too Much, Too Many by Meghan Kennedy.

Please follow this link for my full Talkin' Broadway review: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj36.html 


Rating: 4 E

Too Much, Too Much, Too Many continues through April 10, 2016 at Dragon Productions Theatre Company, 2120 Broadway Street, Redwood City, CA.  Tickets are available online at http://dragonproductions.net/box-office.html or by calling 650-493-2006.

Photo by Dragon Productions Theatre Company
 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

"The Boys from Syracuse"


The Boys from Syracuse
Richard Rodgers (Music); Lorenz Hart (Lyrics); George Abbott (Book)

Elise Youssef, Lucas Coleman, David Naughton & Abby Haug
Don’t feel like tapping your toes, humming along without realizing it, grinning in the dark until your jaws ache, or suddenly guffawing so loudly the person in front of you turns around startled?  Then I suggest you don’t head to 42nd Street Moon for their revival of the Rodgers and Hart slapstick-hilarious and fabulously melodic The Boys from Syracuse.  I dare you to sit through even a minute without chuckling or five minutes without turning to your neighbor to whisper, “That’s such a favorite song of mine.”  The Boys from Syracuse -- as directed by the Moon’s retiring Artistic Director and co-founder, Greg MacKellan -- never misses a beat to draw upon the antics from the likes of vaudeville, the Marx Brothers, Lucille Ball, Lewis and Martin, and the great silver screen comedies of past eras in order to elicit another laugh from somewhere in the audience.  When combined with some of yesteryear’s best Broadway songs sung to near perfection and when accompanied by full-of-fun-and-frolic choreography danced without a hitch, how can we not say that Greg MacKellan’s swan song production may be one of his best-ever undertakings at his (and our) much-loved 42nd Street Moon?

Based on and staying true (via George Abbott’s book) to William Shakespeare’s Comedy of Errors, The Boys from Syracuse plops unexpectedly into the streets of ancient Ephesus two sets of identical twins separated in a ship wreck at birth, one half of each set who has arrived from the arch-enemy city of Syracuse.  As the aristocratic Antipholus of Syracuse and his loyal servant Dromio roam the same streets as do their duplicates, Antipholus and Dromio of Ephesus, mix-ups and misidentifications by the dozens ensue.  Wives end up in beds with the wrong husband.  A sister-in-law falls heads over heels in love with whom she knows (or does she?) she shouldn’t.  A courtesan tempts one twin to bed and demands, with threat of a scandal, a promised gold chain from a bewildered other twin. The town’s unpaid goldsmith seeks an arrest of the wrong man, which the police sergeant is ready to do if he can keep his eyes (and hands) off the nearby ladies of the night.  Even a sorcerer gets in the act, unable to make heads or tails of the resulting chaos, but fully willing to try a few tricks of his own.  In the meantime, unbeknownst to either Antipholus of S or of E, his never-seen-since-birth father is about to be executed, and his long-lost mother is the town’s head priestess hidden away in the main square’s temple.  With its streets full of mad-dash chases, madcap mix-ups, and a lot of mad and maddening citizens and visitors, Ephesus is a mess – which is all good news for us, the audience.  Further hilarity comes for us in that we have as difficult time telling the twins apart as does all of Ephesus.  The two Dromios on stage are actually identical twins in real life while the two playing Antipholus could quite easily be mistaken as such through their matching hair, beard, and build.

But it is really the music of Richard Rodgers and the lyrics of Lorenz Hart that provide the potential for The Boys from Syracuse to be a memorable outing, and this cast ensures that is the case.  Most impressive is how singer after singer refuses, even with all the surrounding shenanigans, not to fall in the trap of over-singing.  Antipholus of Ephesus (David Naughton) and his wife Adriana (Abby Haug) sing the beautiful “The Shortest Day of the Year” as if in true conversation with notes coming out naturally and easily as they tell us that the shortest day “has the longest night of the year.”  When Adriana’s sister, Luciana (Elise Youssef), employs her soprano voice and always-expressive countenance to sing in reprise “This Can’t Be Love,” the words float with grace as she shows great restraint in controlling and contrasting her dynamics.  And when Adriana’s crystal-clear soprano voice is joined in the second half with the more sharp-edged voice of Antipholus of Syracuse (Lucas Coleman) as they sit on the stage’s edge singing “You Have Cast Your Shadow on the Sea,” the two voices blend beautifully in almost whisper as they promise, “You will be with me.” 

One who does bring full voice again and again, always without strain or blast, is Heather Orth as Luce -- handmaiden to Adriana, wife to the sometimes-not-interested Dromio of E, and mistaken bedmate of the you-bet-I’m-interested Dromio of S.  In “What Can You Do with a Man,” she counters the cute, high voice of her curly-haired husband Dromio of E (Paul Rescigno) -- whose eyes often widen to perfect circles to reveal pupils that pop with pizzazz – with her strong, reverberating contralto as she sings, “He eats me out of house and home.”  Later with Dromio of S (Robbie Rescigno), the two engage in a mimicked minuet while singing the very fun “He and She,” mixing with success his sharp tenor with her more broad, deep, and mature vocals. 

Michael Rhone takes a mostly background part of the Police Sergeant and turns it time and again into gold with a rich voice that can rise in volume with absolutely no distortion.  He is hilarious in “I Had Twins,” giving full voice to the pantomimes (over done for comedic effect) of the foreigner who does not speak the Ephesus tongue, Aegeon (Stephen Vaught), the father from Syracuse of the Antipholus twins.  Later, he leads the goldsmith Angelo (Nikita Burtshteyn, full of fun-faced expressions) and a town merchant (Stephen Vaught’s other role) in a hammed-up-to-the-hilt chorus line, singing “Come with Me” as they convince Antipholus of E all the many positives of life in jail (“ your own little room ... where the food is free, where the landlord never comes”).

Elise Youssef, Abby Haug & Heather Orth
The three lead women (Adriana, Luciana, and Luce) by far acquire the night’s biggest, most sustained applause for their harmonic, well-choreographed “Sing for Your Supper.”  Mixing even some scat in, the three individually and collectively beam and bounce with aplomb as they rattle off the familiar lyrics that more than just a few women in the audience were singing along by the called-for encore.

Time and again, Jayne Zaban’s choreography hits that mark in large and small group numbers from the high jumps and kicks of the opening “I Had Twins” to a mix of many dance types in “Oh, Diogenes,” a saucy number led by the sassy and sexy Courtesan (Dyan McBride, also bringing good vocals).  An amazingly choreographed “Big Brother” duo is performed by the two Dromios, in which each mirrors with near exactness the dancing, tumbling antics, and clever clowning of the other.  (Recall, those of us of a certain age, the famous scene of Lucille Ball and Harpo Marx doing the same sixty years ago).

Much of the fun of this production is reflected in the both stunning and silly costumes designed by Stephen Smith.  Bright colors abound, class distinctions are properly differentiated tongue-in-cheek, and separated twins are conveniently tailored by the same guy in town to look exactly alike.    Andrew Custer’s lighting shows all the many-hued combinations in full luster and glitter.

The production’s absolute success comes not just from Greg MacKellan’s fine-tuned, yet cheeky direction, but also from the incredible musical direction of Dave Dobrusky.  As always, he not only prepares and leads this large singing ensemble in its musical prowess, but he also transforms the keyboard into sounds worthy of a full orchestra.  Together with this excellent cast and crew, MacKellan and Dobrusky have teamed up one more time to bring to San Francisco a stellar revival of a long-ago hit to an appreciative and loyal audience of admirers of 42nd Street Moon.

Rating: 5 E

42nd Street Moon Theatre’s The Boys from Syracuse will continue through April 17, 2016, at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.42ndstmoon.org/  or by calling 415-255-8207.

Photos by David Allen

Saturday, March 26, 2016

"The How and the Why"


The How and the Why
Sarah Treem


Martha Brigham & Nancy Carlin
First nervously fidgeting, then just staring blankly at her laptop with obvious, undefined anxiety, she sits in an office that has a feel of a holy sanctuary with its church-like window and beautiful cherry-wood floors.  Minutes pass before a young woman with her own look of stressful apprehension gingerly eases through the cracked-open door, only to begin an up-and-down negotiation between the fifty-something and the twenty-something of should they sit or stand before they might actually talk.  So sets the scene between two women of science, specifically of evolutionary biology, both of whom are interested not only in how we evolved as we did, but why the specific evolution took the path it did.  One is an accomplished leader of the field with confident gravitas clearly engraved in her tall, skirt-and-sweater stature.  The other, an aspirant doctoral student, comes in jeans and scarf to meet one of the greats and maybe to solicit her help.  Aurora Theatre Company stages the Bay Area premiere of Sarah Treem’s The How and the Why, a play that gives voice – actually two impassioned voices often in disagreement – to these women scientists who bring their generational differences, their potentially conflicting theories, and their surprisingly overlapping personal crises to a conversation neither is sure she wants to have.  With plot twists that just keep coming and coming, the play is a ride that holds rapt attention of it audience and sends heads spinning as yet one more surprise is revealed.

Zelda is a board member of the National Organization of Research Biologists (aka NORB), winner of its esteemed Dobhzansky award in the study of evolution, and author some thirty years prior (at the age of 28, no less) of the seminal but still controversial “Grandmother Hypothesis” (claiming women have evolutionary advantage in aging due to the need for someone to care for grandchildren, thus the necessity to live beyond menopause).  Rachel has her own theory about menopause (“It came to me in a dream”), that it is a defense women have built up in evolutionary survival against the toxicity of sperm (sperm being like an invading “oil spill” into the “glacial lake” of the female anatomy).  She brings youthful sureness and enthusiasm of “It’s going to change everything, the way women think about their bodies ... the way they have sex.”  Though skeptical, Zelda admires the brave, brash thinking that has possibilities for further development and offers Rachel a spot at the annual NORB’s conference coming up in three days, a spot that Rachel had already been denied by committee.  All of this is discussed in a mixture of deep technical dives as well as pushy probes into personal lives, past associations, and current boyfriends – leading to a number of “This is going badly” outbursts with Rachel bolting for the door and Zelda blocking her exit.

Physically, Nancy Carlin and Martha Brigham as Zelda and Rachel are as far apart as their ages and as-of-yet, earned esteem.  Ms. Carlin brings Bea Arthur masculinity and somewhat bigger-than-life size and confident demeanor.  This is in stark contrast to the a much shorter, often slouching Rachel, whose eyes tend to look down a lot, whose mouth quivers with uptight nerves, and whose sudden jumpiness alternates with complete collapse into a ball in her chair.  Each actress is masterful in developing her character into someone we come to understand and to care about; and though they are often in conflict of differing ideas about everything from professional ethics to love, there is a bond building between them that we see and want deep inside to cheer on to a positive conclusion.  Each is also amazing in her capacity to click off in rapid progression a plethora of scientific terms and explanations and a history of the people (mostly men) in their field on whose ideas they now build and/or destroy with their own theories – all done by each actress without one stumble or any hesitation.

Nancy Carlin & Martha Brigham
The tension of contrasting ideas and mores between a woman priding herself as an old-guard feminist and of a younger woman struggling to decide which is prime for her, success in academia or success in love, is where Sarah Teem’s script particularly sizzles and snaps.  Rachel wants to include her BF and fellow doctoral student Dean (whose academic star seems to be falling just as hers is rising) on the conference podium with her while Zelda keeps asking (and even angrily screaming), “But who wrote the abstract?”  The older Zelda, who admits, “I was once a sexual Magellan ... I was just not very good at monogamy,” now describes love as “stress,” declaring, “I refuse anything so ordinary to define me.”  For Rachel, “Love is magic,” as she comes close to taking a more traditional view of the role of women in relation to men, a view that infuriates the disbelieving Zelda. 

Joy Carlin directs this back-and-forth game being played that is sometimes like a boxing match of wits and wills and at other times like a modern dance where one move is shadowed briefly before a new breakout takes the choreography into a totally new realm.  Never does the pace, intrigue, and/or tension diminish to a point any audience member dares to look away, even when there is just one woman on stage. 

Nancy Carlin & Martha Brigham
While the first act takes place in the office paying homage in its many pictures, souvenirs, and packed bookshelves to Zelda’s honored career, the second occurs in a Boston beer bar more to Rachel’s liking and clearly never a place that Zelda has thought about coming.  Both are created in wonderful detail by Kent Dorsey as scenic and lighting designer and by Devon Labelle as props designer.  Chris Houston adds in sound design the soaring, classical music backdrop appropriate for Zelda’s half and the hard rock, throbbing beats that match Rachel’s location-of-choice.  Christine Dougherty ensures that Zelda has the wardrobe of distinction that a highly regarded professor at a hallowed Boston university would wear and dresses Rachel in all the layers, tight pants, and weird shoes of a twenty-nine-year-old doctoral student with no budget.

If there is fault with The How and Why, it falls not on the shoulders of this exceptional cast and director or this beautifully crafted staging by Aurora Theatre.  In Ms. Treem’s script, there are simply a few too many sudden surprises that conveniently make so many aspects of these two women overlap, mold, and jell in ways, frankly, not to be totally believable.  Having said that, this is fiction, so giving the playwright the full range of poetic license, in the end, Aurora’s The How and Why is quite the place to be for a captivating evening of challenging and heart-warming theatre.

Rating: 4 E

The How and the Why continues through May 22, 2016 at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available online at https://auroratheatre.org or by calling 415-843-4822.

Photo by David Allen

"The Realistic Joneses"


The Realistic Joneses
Will Eno


Allison Jean White, James Wagner, Rebecca Watson & Rod Gnapp
Under a massive, darkened sky full of twinkling stars “where you can almost hear the clouds go by” and “in one of those little towns near the mountains,” two neighboring couples sit out in their backyards talking a lot and often not saying very much.  All with the common name of “Jones,” each is like an “Everyman/Everywoman,” expressing the probing questions and deep-felt desires any and all of us has but also blurting out-of-the blue comments that probably few of us ever would say.  Their banter is both a rapid-fire of short phrases batted back and forth as well as periodic pauses where it is unclear if and when someone will speak next.  Surprising insights as well as unintentional non-sequiturs dot their conversations.  More often than not, where those conversations go often results in laughter from somewhere deep in the watching audience.  American Conservatory Theatre presents Will Eno’s The Realistic Joneses, a play New York Times critic Charles Isherwood described in 2005, “a Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation.”  The result is an engrossing and enigmatic, sassy and sad, comedic and compassionate look at loneliness and relationship, fear and courage, death and dreams.

The middle-aged Bob and Jennifer (Jones) have new neighbors, younger John and Pony (Jones).  The two couples hang out in their back yards, mostly at night it seems, and begin to spend more and more time together as a group and in various couplings (including eventually some neighborly wife-husband swapping on the side).  Along with last names, the two men share being victims of the Harman Levy Syndrome (“Sounds like a jazz combo,” says one), an increasingly debilitating disease that they all seem to understand, but do not really want to say aloud, will end in sure death.  There is contemplation of the inevitable in wives’ worried glances at husbands and husbands’ blank stares into nowhere; but there is hesitation to confront for long, if at all, the fears gripping them inside.  The horror of one and the fascination of another with a found, dead squirrel that is quickly tossed with a loud thud into a waiting garbage can captures the way death is hanging in the air around them but is quickly passed over as a topic not to be dealt with at this time. 

Their lives are not moving much of anywhere in particular, but there is a journey each is on that appears to be difficult.  Jennifer voices what any one of them could have said of their lives: “I don’t know how everybody else does this.”  Although there is a lot of talking going on, it is unclear how much is being shared.  As Bob says to his wife, “There are a lot of unsaid things between us ... good things.”  Their meetings and greetings are often awkward; relationship does not come naturally.  An unseen magnet pulls them together, but loneliness is always present for each.   Says one to another, “I like your voice, but don’t touch me or say anything,” reflecting the yes/no attitude each shows when considering bridging a connection to another.

Rod Gnapp & James Wagner
The vast sky above both seems to give them some peace of mind while also reflecting just how small and insignificant they really are.  Pony says at one point, “If they get all the big history stuff wrong, what will they say (someday) about us?”  Huge trees that hover above them remind us that it is to nature and forests that playwrights often send troubled souls to seek solace and resolution.  While answers do not necessarily emerge to the questions they seem to be positing about their lives, there is a collective, calm face in the end given to the realism of their situations -- a kind of group sigh of some recognized relief that life is what it is, and now let’s just move on to tomorrow.

Rod Gnapp and Rebecca Watson are the older Bob and Jennifer; James Wagner and Allison Jean White, the younger John and Pony.  While each performer brings wonderful nuance, quirkiness, and depth of interpretation to the four individuals, their power of performance is actually as an ensemble.  In quartet, trio, and various duet combinations, their conversations amuse, intrigue, and provide some pause – but in wonderfully different ways among the different mixes.  Loretto Greco directs their chamber-like performance with a deft touch that is never over-bearing but always just a bit surprising in what comes next in how Will Eno’s clever dialogues will be delivered.  

Rebecca Watson & Rod Gnapp
Andrew Boyce has created a fabulous set that reflects both the immensity of the universe and the familiarity of homes and backyards that could be any of ours, any where in much of small-town America.  The nighttime and other nature sounds created by David Van Tieghem join with the lighting schemes of Robert Wierzel to create a feel of the outdoors on the large ACT stage.  Brandin Baron pitches in with costumes that are generic enough to be things most of us might wear at some point but also telling of the personalities each character brings to the scene.

That nothing is really resolved in the end of this glimpse into these four lives does not mean that something significant has not happened.  We leave them feeling perhaps a bit more connected with each other than when we met them.  We have laughed, and even they have laughed a few times along the way.  We and they have once again been reminded of our mortality; our need to matter in some way, to someone, before we go; and our realization that in the end, we are just specks in a much grander scheme ... and that is probably OK.  American Conservatory Theatre, Loretta Greco, and this talented cast of four leave us with some chuckles, maybe a tear or two, and some things to go home and gnaw on for awhile about who we are and why we are.

Rating: 4 E

The Realistic Joneses continues through April 3, 2016 at the Geary stage of the American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street.  Tickets are available online at http://www.act-sf.org/ or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne

Friday, March 25, 2016

"The Elephant Man"


The Elephant Man
Bernard Pomerance
 
George Psarras, Max Tachis & Kristin Brownstone
Within minutes of the play’s beginning, it is clear to the hushed audience that City Lights Theater Company has cast a John Merrick who can stand up to the best of those who have won accolades and awards in the past 25+ years for this most difficult stage role of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man (including 1979 and 2015 Tony nominations for Philip Anglim and Bradley Cooper, respectively).  Further, it only takes an added-for-this-production, silently-staged prologue introducing us to the streets and citizens of Victorian London, high and low of birth, to realize that Lisa Mallette is not going to be intimidated by the scores of much larger stages and auditoria where The Elephant Man has played in all its many premieres and tours since 1979.  

For my full review of this excellent production, please link to Talkin' Broadway: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj35.html 


Rating: 4 E

City Lights Theater Company continues through April 17, 2016 its production of The Elephant Man on its main stage at 529 South Second Street, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at https://cltc.org/tickets/ or by calling 408-295-4200 Monday – Friday, 1-5 p.m.

Photo Credit: Susan Mah Photography
 

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

"Second Time Around: A Duet for Cello and Storyteller"


Second Time Around: A Duet for Cello and Storyteller
Charlie Varon (monologue) and Joan Jeanrenaud (score)

Charlie Varon & Joan Jeanrenaud
Plaintive, lower chords merge into slowly picked notes that then give way to faster rhythms and phrases higher on the scale of the cello’s strings.  All the while, a bearded man watches the cellist with a look of reverent amazement.  That same man and prime creator of the story to be relayed over next seventy-five minutes, Charlie Varon, then turns to the compact Marsh audience and begins telling another chapter in his nascent cycle about residents in a fictitious San Francisco, Jewish, retirement community (the Marsh’s Feisty Old Jew being the first installment of what his fans hope eventually will be many). 

My full review of  Second Time Around: A Duet for Cello and Storyteller can be found on Talkin' Broadway: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanfran/s1563.html

Rating: 3 E

Second Time Around: A Duet for Cello and Storyteller continues through April 17, 2016, Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at the San Francisco Marsh, main stage, 1062 Valencia Street.  Tickets are available at http://themarsh.org or by calling 415-282-3055 Monday – Friday, 1 – 4 p.m.

Photo Credit: David Allen

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

"Talking Heads"


Talking Heads
Alan Bennett

Laylah Muran De Assereto as Celia

Annie Larson as Miss Fozzard

Susan Maeder as Susan
Renowned British essayist, storywriter, actor, and playwright Alan Bennett (probably best known for The History Boys and The Madness of King George) wrote – and even starred in some – two series of dramatic monologues entitled Talking Heads that played on the BBC in 1988 and 1998.  Six of these were converted to two programs in a West End production in 1992 and on Off-Broadway in 2003.  The Spare Stage Company of San Francisco presents three of those six that feature three eccentric, quirky, but also delightful British ladies – all of a certain age past sixty -- living somewhere in the vicinity of Leeds, England. 

My full review can be read on Talkin' Broadway: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanfran/s1561.html


Rating: 4 E

Talking Heads continues through March 27, 2016 by Spare Stage at the Royce at Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at http://sparestage.com/ .

Photo Credit: Stephen Drewes

Sunday, March 20, 2016

"Colossal"


Colossal
Andrew Hinderaker

The Players Prepare
A tail-gate picnic table full of all the wrong, but good things to eat (chips, dip, Cheetos, etc.) along side a full bar of tempting drink specials gives the now-crowded theatre lobby a whole new feel from normal. Reverberating beats and crashes of drums and cymbals from an awaiting auditorium begin to draw in the somewhat reluctant-to-leave, but increasingly curious, partying crowd.  As we turn the corner at the stair’s top, we stare onto a stage-filling artificial-turf football field.  Fully padded, muscular players go through pre-game stretches, push-ups, and drills over the watchful eye of a pacing coach while a fervent drum-line keeps a fierce beat on the sidelines.  Across the field of pounding, puffing, already sweaty footballers is a lighted scoreboard ticking off the minutes to the start of game.  Dodging band and ball players is a lone, fifty-something statue of a man doing his own gentle stretches, mostly oblivious of the others; and they, of him.  And thus it goes until the final two minutes of the countdown when drums stop, players circle on bended knee, and the Texas team joins their coach in the obligatory prayer.  And then the game – and the play – finally begins.

As if it were not already obvious from this pre-play skirmish why Andrew Hinderaker chose to title his play Colossal, the next four, fifteen-minute quarters of game and drama are about to reveal several key reasons.  On this simulated gridiron with six very authentic, college football hunks; a working scoreboard; and an incredibly talented and precision-marching trio 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; the complicated dynamics of interracial friendship and love; and the parental hopes that unmet escalate into explosions between fathers and sons.  Add in a rough-and-tumble football team that transforms in front of us into a fully accomplished, modern dance troupe; an accomplished, young actor who plays on stage a former athlete with a debilitating spinal injury that is closer to his day-to-day, real-life than we might imagine; 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 play could have.

Mike (Jason Stojanovski) Watches Yet Again the Replay
Rolling onto and all about the field in his wheelchair, Mike uses his remote TV control to start, stop, reverse, and spot focus the football action occurring all around him.  He continually plays, replays, and 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 ten months 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 in his mind and on the stage before us both fun and difficult moments, going as far back as when he announced to his shocked and immediately-furious dad (a leader of his own dance company) that he was foregoing all his years of studio training for the gridiron.  (“You do this, and I will never speak to you again,” the dad screams.) 

Now living with his Dad, Mike gets easily annoyed at every attempt his obviously repentful Dad makes to help ease his day-to-day struggles.  With his psychology-trained physical therapist, Mike 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.

Jason Stojanovski (Mike) & Wiley Naman Stasser (Jerry)
Jason Stojanovski as the wheelchair-bound Mike gives a performance that soars in every respect.  We watch as he studies intently from every angle of what we come to realize was his life-altering injury, always pausing in that same spot as he is flying high in the air with his arm outstretched and body prone.  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 (Wiley Naman Strasser).  Their exchanges are at times like sparring boxers and at other times, like a comedy duo.  (Mike: “You seriously talk more than anyone I ever met.”  Jerry: “I am just trying hard to put the therapy back into physical therapy.”)  As Jerry, Mr. Stasser pushes hard and then pushes some more to persuade Mike to let go of regrets of things he cannot change and to tackle with his old, on-field vigor the task at hand: rehabilitation of both body and mind.

We are continually intrigued by the egging of Mike’s alter, younger self (Thomas Gorrebeeck) 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 Younger Mike continually interrupts in chair-bound Mike’s inner mind’s eye other encounters he is having with his father or his therapist as well as engages one-on-one in challenging, mocking, pleading manners.  “God, you look back; it’s been ten months, but you look ten years older,” the still muscular and magazine-cover-handsome Younger Mike taunts.  At other times, the inner voice cries desperately to a Mike who refuses to listen, “Tell him ... Tell him the truth ... Don’t tell him that bullshit.”  These two actors playing two peas of the same pod engage in an ongoing, gripping conversation with self that probably all of us have had at some point in our lives; and they do so masterfully.

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 as the two of them banter and bicker.   This same team of six transforms with full grace and dignity into a dreamlike dance troupe that allows surprising parallels to be drawn between two seemingly disparate worlds (football and dance).  Their half-time performance of frozen lifts, graceful twists, and delicate turns morphs into a final choreography of tribal, masculine steps and stomps – all accompanied by a talented drum corps (Alex Hersler, Zach Smith, and Andrew Humann) who resort at one point to just drum sticks and rhythmic claps to support the dancers.

Cameron Matthews (Marcus) & Thomas Gorrebeeck (Young Mike)
We smile, laugh, and sigh as Mike remembers scenes on field and in gym of quite purposeful bumping, tumbling, and touching with his darkly handsome, curly/coiled co-captain Marcus as well as their hotel-room, first night of cautious, then passionate encounter.  As Marcus, Cameron Matthews never totally comes clean about his feelings for Mike in words but his eyes and those touches on arm, leg, and butt say loudly what is rumbling on deep inside him.  Scared of being discovered in a sport where being ‘that way’ could end his dream of the professional league, Marcus does sheepishly agree someday to meet Mike “at a little chateau in the South of France.”

Finally, our hearts cannot help but extend to Mike’s devoted father, now constant companion, Damon (Robert Parsons).  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.  Damon makes inroads slowly and patiently into cracking the hard shell his son has sealed around himself.  When the crack does finally come in a torrent of tears and admissions of a lost love, the pas de deux of the two former dancers is breath-taking and heart-touching.

Director Jon Tracy has insured Colossal is packed with boldness of action worthy of the gridiron while also infusing the intense reflection and deep sensitivity of a solo dancer.  Keith Pinto’s dance choreography and Dave Maier’s stunt choreography work well hand-in-hand to bring these two disparate, but maybe-not-that-far-apart worlds together.

In the past couple of years and prior to this Bay Area debut, Colossal marched across America in a rolling premiere of five cities.  It was accompanied 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 2015 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.  San Francisco Playhouse’s Colossal delves into several current issues of football while also exploring our stereotypes of the players themselves.  Andrew Hinderaker forces us to confront how we tend to see and treat those different from us by race, sexual orientation, or physical abilities.  In the end though, Colossal 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

Colossal continues at San Francisco Playhouse through April 30, 2016, 450 Post Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/  or by calling 415-677.9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli