Saturday, April 30, 2016

"Into the Woods"


Into the Woods
Stephen Sondheim (Music & Lyrics); James Lapine (Book)

Adrienne Walters, Timothy Sanders, Chris Janssen & Elizabeth Santana
Continuing its 85th Anniversary, touted the “Toniest Season Ever,” Palo Alto Players ventures into a forest previously much traveled by many of its sister Bay Area stages.  What more can possibly be squeezed out of what happens after “happily ever after” in the Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book), multi-Tony-winning (1988 and 2002) Into the Woods?  While steering away from some of the darker, more sensuous productions of late, Palo Alto Players has instead found that a good measure of tongue-in-cheek, a little camp here and there, beautifully imaginative staging, and a cast full of superb voices in fact are the right combination to warrant bringing this much-beloved, fractured, fairy tale, musical once again to a local stage. 

Please click to read my full review on Talkin' Broadway:   http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj40.html


Rating: 4 E

Into the Woods continues through May 8, 2016 at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  Tickets are available at http://www.paplayers.org or by calling 650-329-0891.

Photo Credit: Joyce Goldschmid

Friday, April 29, 2016

"Boeing Boeing"


Boeing Boeing
Marc Camoletti
Translation by Beverly Cross & Francis Evans

Joshua Hollister, Halsey Varady & Michael Barrett Austin
Seeing seven doors across the stage wall can only mean one thing:  Buckle your seat belt because it’s going to be a wild and wooly night of loud slams, just misses, surprise comings, and split-second goings.  And be prepared not just to snicker or chuckle but to downright roar, bellow, and guffaw – totally embarrassing yourself when the audience member in front of you turns around and gives you the evil eye!  Nothing short than the funnest -- Is it a word?  Steve Jobs said so, and so it is -- of evenings is guaranteed at The Stage’s exceptionally well-acted, well-directed Boeing Boeing, the most-produced-ever French language play by Marc Camoletti (presented in translation by Beverly Cross and Francis Evans).  Director Kenneth Kelleher has milked literally every line of this 1962 script and every thirty seconds (or less) of playing time to find ways to draw big laughs; and the crazy, frenetic antics he and the cast employ never fail to work in their mission.  

Follow this link for my full Talkin' Broadway review: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj39.html

Rating: 5 E

Boeing Boeing continues through May 1, 2016 at at San Jose Stage Company, 490 South First Street, San Jose, CA.  Tickets are available at www.thestage.org or by calling the box office at 408-283-7142.

Photo Credit: Dave Lepori


"Above and Beyond the Valley of the Ultra Showgirls"


Above and Beyond the Valley of the Ultra Showgirls
D’Arcy Drollinger (Book)
Enrique (Music & Lyrics); Steve Bolinger (Additional Music)

D'Arcy Drollinger, Nancy French & John Paul Gonzalez
Hard rock, drug overdoses, murder, lots (and lots) of T & A, miracles from heaven, space invaders, and of course wild and wooly sex.  What else would we expect from D’Arcy Drollinger’s lastest, over-the-top parody?  (Remember the recent big hits Shit and Champagne and Temple of Poon, both loved by the more deranged and demented of us in SF?)  Well, ladies and gents, hold on to your cups and your jock straps because his most recent melodrama-on-steroids is a musical; and it is damn good -- just as you would expect from anything that D’Arcy touches. 

First performed almost twenty years ago, D’Arcy Drollinger’s (book) Above and Beyond the Valley of the Ultra Showgirls is a pastiche extraordinaire of at least three, now-cult favorites:  Russ Meyer’s 1970 Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, Paul Verhoeven’s 1995 Showgirls, and the late-eighties cartoon, “Jem and the Holograms.”  And it is not difficult to see nods to Hedwig and the Angry Inch and The Rocky Horror Show along the way.  Everything but the kitchen sink that is sinful and silly in the last thirty years of girl band and showgirl naughtiness is game for Director D’Arcy’s current outing’s fun and fantastical mockery.  Thanks to the music and lyrics by Enrique and additional music of Steve Bolinger, it all comes with a good hard band beat and sung words to draw gasps and laughter.

Wanna-be hit band, the Super Vixens, is in search of a big break; and its three big-haired, big tits, and just big all over girls are looking for the sugar daddy to take them to the top.  Chardonnay (John Paul Gonzalez), Chablis (D’Arcy Drollinger), and Gewürztraminer (Nancy French) are best friends with serious make-up issues (blue lips, pink eye shadow, painted eye brows anyone?) and tight, sparkly outfits that barely cover their ... well, their everything.  But they can sing and perform on stage with girl gusto, like in their opening “Wanna Be Your Flesh Popcycle” (“and I want you to lick me”) or their later “Thunder Pussy” (written in 15/4?).  With perfectly coordinated movements exaggerated to the hilt; strong, reverberating voices; and heads of ratted hair that fly in all directions, the Vixens are a total hoot to enjoy.

Enter Richard Face of Warmer Sisters Records (Manuel Caneri), who immediately says, “Call me Dick,” of course than setting off like Chinese New Year fireworks an explosion of “Dick” jokes by all three Vixens.  With his two hot-dressed, totally sexy sidekicks and back-up singers, Cabernet (Jane D’Oh) and Chianti (Bobby Barnaby), the flashy (and also sexy) Dick asks in song, “Do you want to go to heaven, to be a star?” as the three sing in outstanding voice and great rock harmony, “You Got the Certain Something.”  But he does not sing to all the Vixens, just to the more petite and cute Gewurtz, mocking the other two (who are of course drag queens to us) and their Adams apples, big feet, and deep voices.

Nancy French -- with a blank, deer-in-headlight look that only she can do in show after show at the Oasis – sings in nice ballad voice “Don’t You See I Can’t Leave Them?,” followed by a hilarious “I’m Still Thinking” (with the five-piece band in the background joining in).  But she does decide to join Dick and his dynamo duo as the new lead singer, becoming Sherry (going from dinner wine to aperitif) and eventually opening on the big stage in a cone-shaped bra that Madonna would envy, belting in full bluster, “Slide It On Into My Ice Bucket.”  (Get the gist?  The songs are all XXX-rated ... and then some.)

And it is at this point that the parodies of the aforementioned films really kick in.  The now-rejected Chardonnay and Chablis are like fine wines turned to vinegar; and the road ahead for them is through the one valley dolls like them have gone down before to meet their demise.  The twists and turns are only to be seen to be believed; but just to give a hint of the fun to come, John Paul Gonzalez brings to bear his falsetto best as Chardonnay at one point pitifully sings, “If I Only Had Arms,” opining with those big, sad eyes, “Life isn’t fair, I can’t even do my hair.”

A D’Arcy touch well known to his Oasis fans is to announce scenes and locations with a scantily clad, full-of-attitude showgirl prancing (or sometimes stumbling) across the stage with a big-lettered placard.  Lavale William Davis wonderfully fulfills the role in this show as Karla Rossi, bringing her rich singing voice to bear in a number of cast songs and also playing with attitude various filler parts along the way.  Joining also in the cast is Melinda Campero as Cristal Anderson as a raving, screaming Vixen fan who finally makes it big herself and gets to deliver maybe the night’s best number in full New Orleans, back-alley sound, “Sweet Talking Candyman.”

Just watch a few minutes of a “Jem and the Holygrams” cartoon, and you will begin to see the inspirations for the glitzy, tight-fitting, often-sparse costumes that Christine Crook has so creatively designed for the show and that are as much a part of its total success as any other aspect.  Becky Motorlodge’s wigs also play a starring role along with whoever -- probably the actors themselves -- create and apply each night the mounds of glittering make-up. 

The show’s multi-genre musical score -- with the rock sound of the 80s predominating -- is played with perfect pizzazz by its band of five, four of whom were in the original show nineteen years prior.  Steve Bolinger (keyboards), Peter Fogel (guitar), Christian Matthews (drums), Tim Perdue (bass) and Julie Vlcek-Burke (horns) are on stage the entire show and not only provide the musical backdrop but also often join in to add camp and comedy.

D’Arcy Drolinger and Friends do not produce high-brow theatre, and their choice of subjects and texts will not work for everyone (certainly no one under 21 and no one who plans to vote for Ted Cruz).  But much  intelligent ingenuity is woven into each guffaw-rich parody produced, with the decision to venture into the realm of musical comedy being exactly the right one for their latest Above and Beyond the Valley of the Ultra Showgirls.

Rating: 5 E

Above and Beyond the Valley of the Ultra Showgirls continues through May 14, Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, 7 p.m., at Oasis, 298 11th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at http://sfoasis.com/.

Photo by Gareth Gooch

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

"Enchanted April"

 
Enchanted April
Richard B. Evans (Music); Charles Leipart (Book & Lyrics)

Amy Franklin Leonards, Joy Sherratt & Rachel Powers
Two wives find themselves dodging raindrops on the streets of dark and dreary London and being ignored in small, equally dreary apartments by husbands much more focused on themselves than on their attractive, itching-for-adventure (or at least some attention) spouses.  So opens in song and scene Enchanted April, a world premiere musical based on the 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim and  now playing at Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre in Pleasanton.   The drudgery and boredom of British February and a stage more black than not soon turn to the flower-and-sun-rich April of Italy’s coast in this light-hearted romance by Richard B. Evans (music) and Charles Leipart (book and lyrics).

For my complete review, please follow the link to Talkin' Broadwayhttp://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanfran/s1584.html

Rating: 3 E


Enchanted April continues its world premiere through May 8, 2016 at the Firehouse Arts Center, 4444 Railroad Avenue, Pleasanton, CA.  Tickets are available at http://pcrtproductions.org

Photo by Peters Suh
 

"Sojourners"


Sojourners
Mfoniso Udofia


Katherine Turner as Abasiama
In the mid-to-late 1960s, the neighborhoods and streets of urban America were too often in flames with lives and property destroyed as African Americans protested white America’s prejudiced resistance to their voting and economic rights.  An ocean and a world away, Nigerian Africans were at the same time engulfed in a horrific civil war that resulted in pogroms, massacres, and devastating famine.  A decade later, Mfoniso Udofia brings four members of these two worlds together in the southern city of Houston, Texas in the first of a planned, nine-play series, Sojourners.  Magic Theatre stages the West Coast premiere in a production that is compelling and challenging in its broader themes of family ties and individual aspirations, of how much being of a similar race or a similar nationality does and does not ensure connection, and of how or not do core human definitions of home, love, and marriage translate similarly across continents.  But even more important, Sojourners introduces four people as they are – raw, unrehearsed, authentic -- with all that is good and bad and in between in each.  But what makes Sojourners an especially important new play is its expression of the human experience of four souls who are precariously hanging on -- both as natives and as immigrants – in their efforts to survive and maybe thrive in the outskirts of the dominant society around them.

We first meet Abasiama Ekpeyoung in her humble apartment with its 1960s green kitchen appliances as she strokes with some combined annoyance and amusement her very pregnant belly -- humming, then singing in her native Nigerian tongue, and finally feeding herself and the hungry, kicking one inside.  Her questioning look (as if the protrusion is not really her or hers) and her sigh that she just wants to get back to studying her college biology text establishes some of the conflicts and dilemmas this young, hard-working immigrant will play out in the next two hours.  Katherine Renee Turner is outstanding in displaying an ocean-depth of Abasiama’s emotions and expressions -- from long, blank stares of no response to peppered questions aimed at her to visceral screams of anger to desperate cries of lonely anguish and fear.  She has arrived in Houston from Nigeria as part of the ‘60s and ‘70s waves of Nigerian education-seekers to join her husband who is supposedly nearing his own graduation from Texas Southern University.  She supports him by working long, grueling hours in the sultry, Houston humidity amd standing all day in the small, glass-enclosed cashier’s hut of a Fiesta gas station.  And she longs for her faraway dad and close community of extended family and friends while enduring a husband whom she suspects is not going to class and who periodically just disappears for days and weeks at a time.

Katherine Turner as Abasiama & Jarrod Smith as Ukpong
Our first encounter with that husband, Ukpong, is as he arrives from one of his sudden sojourns, dressed in bell bottoms, a fashionable shirt showing his buffed chest, and appropriate gold jewelry.  He smoothly sachets about the apartment, periodically playing his Motown 33s or turning on his table radio.  Jarrod Smith is the fast-talking, highly emotive Ukpong, who does all he can to smooth the ruffled feathers of his arriving wife, promising that he has in fact been studying that “macro-macro shit” and then pouring renewed promises of devotion with phrases like “I’ll be the head and you’ll be the neck that turns me.”  Goals they have shared since she arrived in the past year that he graduates, they have a baby, and then the family returns to help revitalize Nigeria soon appear to be in jeopardy as we watch (when his wife is not around) his beer bottles mount, his textbook idle on the floor, and his nervous movements and motions keep aiming him toward the door.  Mr. Smith is successful in portraying a guy we want to like, that we want to work it out with himself and his wife, but that we have many doubts that his big smiles, pursed lips for a kiss, and open arms to hold his reluctant wife are actually all only the shallow veneer of an inside loser.

Katherine Turner as Abasiama & Jamella Cross as Moxie
Into Abasiama’s life at the gas station enters a cocky, foul-mouthed teenage girl who struts her street stuff in tight shorts that do not cover all that they should and a sparkly halter top that also hides little.  Moxie (aka Anna Mae) is a Houston, African-American girl who now hops into arriving trucks to satisfy the sexual fantasies of often, abusive white men.  She and Abasiama appear to have nothing in common but begin a relationship-forming journey that is in many ways the heart and soul of this story.  Jamella Cross totally scores it big time every minute she is on stage in a role that shifts, transforms, and matures in ways that are fascinating and moving to behold. Her Moxie is full of outer, snotty brashness overlaid on an inner vulnerability and loneliness that is so felt in Ms. Cross’s portrayal that it almost breaks one’s heart to watch.  Moxie introduces to Abasiama the joys of a Snicker bar (“Eating this here bar gives me some love”), advises her how to survive in Texas where there is no protecting jungle or family compound (“Out here, you need to take care of yourself”), and instills in the older friend a sense of self-confidence and independence (“You know what you like and what you need ... Just go do it”).  Jamella Cross and her Moxie is a reason alone to spend an evening at the Magic.

Rotimi Agbabiaka as Disciple
Rounding out this excellent ensemble is Rotimi Afbabiaka as Disciple Ufot, a character that spends much of the first act slumped over his typewriter in a darkened corner of the small stage.  Discipline is an immigrant journalist who is searching without much luck for words in English to match those Nigerian ones in his head. “I thank you Lord for giving me three lines, (but) I need a million,” he says as he keeps ripping out papers from the typewriter and tossing them into a sea of wadded paper on the floor.  His planned doctoral thesis on the Nigerian immigrant experience is not progressing until he happens upon Abasiama.  New words begin to form and flow as he declares to her, “You are my family ... Who on this earth knows you but your roots (like me).”  Like Moxie, he stirs in Abasiama a renewed sense of who she is and who she could be in this new land she only meant to visit for a while.  Mr. Afbabiaka projects many complicated layers of his Disciple, a fervent man of God but also a man with earthly needs and desires that he believes only Abasiama can fulfill – but not with either Moxie or Ukpong still in the picture.

The Magic production is nothing short of a gripping story of the combined African immigrant and the native African-American experiences in a still, largely segregated Texas.  However, its telling is somewhat hampered by a number of times in Sean San Jose’s directed production when it is very difficult to follow what is actually being said.  Periodically, there is a sustained predominance of fast-talking shouting on the stage, to the point that the high-dialect speech becomes practically impossible to decipher.  If this were only for a sentence or two, there would be little issue; but when the volume goes on for minutes upon minutes of a scene, it becomes annoying and tiresome.  Fortunately, most of this occurs in the first act; and volumes are more divergent in the second.

Erik Flatmo has made excellent use of the small, floor-level stage of the Magic to provide several different, authentic settings: a modest apartment, a roadside gas station, and a writer’s cramped study.  Karina Chavarin’s costumes accentuate the personalities of each of the four people we meet and give us hints where pressures for assimilation and holding onto native land still play back and forth.  David Molina convinces us in his sound design that trucks have in fact driven right into the theatre, and he is aided by an excellent lighting design by York Kennedy.

While Sojourners can stand alone as its own story, the final minute definitely is an enticing invitation for an audience to return to Magic’s upcoming, second chapter of Mfoniso Udofia’s dramatic saga, this one entitled runboyrun.  Magic Theatre’s Sojourners is just the kind of thematically relevant, daringly edgy, and emotionally compelling theatre that has been the hallmark of this company’s history; and it is well-worth our own sojourn to Fort Mason to see it.

Rating: 4 E

Sojourners continues through May 8, 2016 at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco.  runboyrun will run April 28 – May 15, 2016.  Tickets for both shows are available online at http://magictheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at (415) 441-8822.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

"Anne Boleyn"


Anne Boleyn
Howard Brenton

Craig Marker as Henry VIII & Liz Sklar as Anne Bolyen
She was Queen of England, yet there is no portrait of her since her husband and King scoured the country to destroy all traces of her very existence.  She was decapitated, but exactly what she did to warrant (or not) such vile punishment is still an argument among historians.  What we think we know about her is largely through the many plays, novels, films, and even an opera telling her thousand days of reign as the most famous of Henry VIII’s six wives.  Adding to that long line of portrayals now comes Howard Brenton’s Anne Boleyn in a stunning beautiful and exceptionally well-cast, well-directed, and well-acted West Coast premiere at Marin Theatre Company.  Spanning not only the years leading up to and during her short, royal tenure but also the haunting effects she has on King James I seventy years later, the play pages through both familiar and fantasized history to inform and intrigue us about this momentous turning point for England and the Western World as well as to initiate and instigate parallels to the 21st Century, including even the present U.S. presidential election.

Craig Marker & Liz Sklar
Carrying a bag with an apparent, bulky sphere in it, Anne Boleyn walks on stage and directly taunts the audience before rather playfully showing the gruesome contents.  From those opening moments until the closing fading lights when a now-dead Anne can rest her soul knowing she is in fact remembered, Liz Sklar captures in captivating majesty the full gamut of the vulnerable human, the piously religious, and the daringly political sides of this unlucky Queen.  We become her confidants; and she looks to us in the audience as the ones who can, along with her, validate the obvious, evil plotting of a Cardinal Wolsey or the real attraction of a handsome, courting King.  The dignified, knowing manner she holds herself is like that of a legitimate queen while the way she allows herself to be swooped laughing and teasing into a king’s arms is certainly that of a young woman in love.  Her eyes are piercing and her chin firmly set as she declares, “We are cutting England from the Pope because of me,” but her voice is full of quiet resolve and eerie premonition when she declares even before being crowned, “I would lose my life than my honesty.”  In the scenes of Henry’s England, Liz Sklar is steely in her resolve as a lady of the court and lover of the king to ensure Henry and England make a final break with Rome.  Interspersed throughout the time-bouncing play, she is decades later mysterious, mystical, and moving as an image in James’s mind who listens and advises him as a new king working to resolve and heal some of the left-over, religious schisms due in some small, or perhaps large part, to her earlier, Protestant-leaning vision.  Overall, Ms. Sklar is an Anne Boleyn worthy of joining a long line of actresses who have sought to fill in between the missing lines of who this woman really was.

David Ari as George Valliers & Craig Marker as James I
Equally royal in performance is Craig Marker as both King Henry VIII and as King James I.  When in the broad-shouldered, fur-rich open coat we now most associate with Henry, Mr. Marker struts, leaps, and stomps according to the mood required of this bombastic king who is willing to do whatever it takes to ensure a male progeny.  With his Anne, he tolerates and even delights in her joking and teasing (like her mimicking Cardinal Wolsey as a baaing sheep).  With anyone who dares cross his purposes, he roars with command and threatening vengeance and leaves no doubts that this King will break any political or personal alliance to get his will.  As the newly crowned James, Mr. Marker dons tight-fitting leather wear and tempts with devilish glees any advisor to dare raise more than an eyebrow as he in drag kisses his swish-hipped lover, George Villiers (the convincing David Ari).  His James also relishes with almost childlike enthusiasm the religious debates he sets in play between translators of his commissioned Bible -- that is until their harangues over choices like ‘church’ or ‘congregation’ put him to sleep.  But there is a part of James that anguishes as a man possessed by images of a castle-wandering, deposed Anne; and he desperately searches her for some assurance, understanding, and guidance on how to lead this Church of England as the new King.  The images Craig Marker leaves us as both monarchs are only matched by the memory we will long carry of the loud, raucous, and individually distinct laughter that repeatedly comes from both his kings.

Charles Shaw Robinson as Cardinal Wolsey & Liz Sklar as Anne Boleyn
The stellar qualities of this cast extend to all its members.  Charles Shaw Robinson is dripping-pompous in his robes and rings as well as his demeanor as the power-grabbing Cardinal Wolsey and is patient with rolled eyes and generous understanding as Lord Robert Cecil, counselor to the young James.  Besides playing James’s handsome object of forbidden but tolerated love, David Ari is also the fiercely calculating Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry and yet another court member quite willing to leave whatever body necessary by the wayside while making his own way up the ladder of power (including that of a Queen).  Dan Hiatt is the hooded and hiding exile, William Tyndale, an advocate of the outlawed Protestant movement who meets Anne in the woods to sing, pray, and even shout “Martin Luther.”  He later is a scheming, suggesting Dr. John Reynolds who plays up to James’s desire to do something great in his newly crowned state by suggesting he authorize a new version of the Bible.  Howard Swain is a formidable debater of religious nit-picking in James’ Court, and Ryan Tasker is Harry Barrow, another Puritan separatist and loud, stubborn theological arguer providing his own of set opinions on the words still read today as holy.  Arwen Anderson and Lauren Spencer await Anne as loyal ladies but are also susceptible to turning against her when the evil Wosley threatens them with his famed, basement rack.  As a total ensemble, each person is well matched to assigned roles; and the collective is so ably and astutely directed by Jasson Minadakis.

That we are seeing history in the making is so wonderfully established by Nina Ball’s latest in a long line of spectacular sets on local stages, this surely being one of her very best.  Imagine a book in the museum shop where a page is opened, and up pops a court scene.  That is the look of the intricately cut-out edges of the massive, receding arches of a royal court rising above Marin’s deep and high stage where the only additional property seen or needed is one, lone throne.  Magic happens on the walls of these arches and on the floors under them through exquisitely beautiful lighting by Kurt Landisman.  From shadowy chapels to magnificent courtyards to forests full of giant trees, the lighting schemes prove to be a powerful reason this production is so successful. 

And certainly Ashley Holvick’s costumes created for two eras cannot be overlooked --  costumes speaking of another era but also designed with modern look and flair.   The short dresses of court ladies and the modern-looking pants of some male hangers-on remind us that the religious prejudices, the menacing mixture of state and religion, and the larger-than-life egos of those doing all they can to grab and hang onto power in this play are all too similar to what we read about daily in 2016.  What we hear said in James’s court could be coming from a Op-Ed of today’s NY Times: “Why is it what we do in the name of God is in the same as in our own interest?”

Howard Brenton’s script is heavy in words, images, analogies, and history – sometimes on the verge of too much of any and all of these.  But, with a cast like Marin Theatre Company has assembled and with a production of the soaring quality that is upon this stage, Anne Boleyn is nothing short than theatre that is truly masterpiece through and through.

Rating: 5 E

Anne Boleyn continues in extension through May 15 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA, with a special performance April 30 at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco (12 p.m.).  Tickets for all performances are available online at http://www.marintheatre.org or by calling the box office Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

Friday, April 22, 2016

"The Untamed Stage"


The Untamed Stage
Scrumbly Koldewyn
With Additional Material by Terance Bennan, Damien Chacona, Cab Covay, Andy Wegner, Martin Worman, and Alex Kinney

Scrumbly Koldewyn
“You are here to see things you haven’t seen,
And feel things you haven’t felt.”

And thus are we greeted in a café setting reminiscent of an underground Berlin kabarett during those sultry and sensuous years between the World Wars when Berlin flourished, even exploded, in expressions of political, social, and sexual boundary busting.  From such smoky, crowded corners were birthed entire movements of new thought and art; but from their stages, pianos, and small bands erupted music that swept the city, continent, and the world (Hollander, Kurt Weill, Spliansky) and are remembered in later voices like Marlene Dietrich.  San Francisco-treasured composer and original Cockettes member, Scrumbly Koldewyn, returns to those too-few years of new forms of music that immolated and celebrated Berliners’ experiments in gender-bending, women’s newfound freedoms, openly gay expression, and every sort of previously no-no behavior imaginable.  In a world premiere production at Thrillpeddlers, he and a cast of enthusiastic entertainers of all shapes, ages, colors, and sexes (and in-between sexes) present his newly written The Untamed Stage, with music that reflects the period and is all originally conceived by the beloved composer himself.

The Cast of "The Untamed Stage"
Enhanced with a small stage and tables with cutout patrons in tails and others who actually live and breath, the first half is a series of variety acts entitled “The Untamed Stage Kabarett.”  With a strong, welcoming voice that is not afraid to belt when needed, Zelda Koznofski as our evening’s MC sings a rousing “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” a city where “Everyone’s a sinner ... We don’t have a sense of guilt.”  She will continue to come in and out the entire first act and when singing, is always a kick-in-the-pants for the show’s energy level.

Steven Satyricon & David Bicha
The strong beginning continues and builds in excellent vocals for the next couple of numbers as two of the opening’s back-ups return for solo spotlights.  Kim Larsen, in long white drag dress, sings “No One Is Looking,” a song that is one of several that encourage raucous, even raunchy behavior but one that also comes with a warning of what may lie ahead for Germany.  “So go ahead and do it, do it before it’s too late,” she cautions, looking one by one at each audience member.  With a manacled eye, wide yellow tie knotted in daring manner, and his pin-striped three-piece suit, David Bicha follows, bringing his strong voice and wild-eyed expressions to remind us that these are daring times where all is up for grabs in “Herr and Frau Anstatt.”  “They married as man and wife and at some point they traded,” he croons mischievously.

At this point, audience members are regularly hooting and stomping feet in delighted approval after each number.  Unfortunately, efforts to bring comic bits into this kabarett never match the quality of the music itself, either in the writing or the delivery.  A rather long, crude skit between an Italian father and son who are cleaning a canvassed, life-size toy for men’s sexual pleasure falls flat and deflates for a while the show’s energy, taking a few numbers to recover.  Other attempts of staged humor (like a on-and-off, wandering juggler) also do little to enhance the evening.

But as the act’s numbers continue, often with the deliciously dirty lyrics and ass-showing antics Thrillpeddlers’ audiences have come to expect, those in the seats and couches of the small theater soon get fully back into the mood of a Berlin nightclub.  Highlights include one of the evening’s best numbers when Zelda Koznofski, Crystal Why, and Bruna Palmeiro knock it out of the park in “How Much Longer,” with three diva voices giving it all they got and singing, “How much longer will we endure it? ... When will the day come women are free?”  Vying as the best voice and overall performer of the show, Crystal Why in her fabulous dress of black and white, metallic-shiny squares returns with Jason Wade and Steven Satyricon to belt a song (“Too Decadent for You”) hilariously detailing their boredom with once-tried sexual kinks and fetishes.  Again, with some premonition of what is historically to come, “We’ve slipped so far down the slippery edge, there’s no place to go,” the trio sings. 

In long, silvery gown hugging his tall, slender body, the always satisfying Noah Haydon closes the kabarett half of the night with a haunting “Waiting,” unnerving for us who know what probably happened to many of the performers and patrons of those Berlin venues.  In quiet voice, the drag performer sings, “We are all waiting for the next crowded train.”

The Brown Shorts
While Act One is full of sexual explicitness, Act Two crosses the borders into erotic fantasies, and some might way downright sexual perversion (which may or may not be a good thing, according to one’s tolerance level for such tongue-in-cheek, XXX material).  “The German Thing to Do – or How a Cow Changes History” is a musical parody of the threats already appearing in the German ‘20s of those who espoused Aryan superiority, in this case a group of “Brown Shorts” (instead of the actual ‘Brown Shirts’), all wearing aprons outlined as lederhosen.  Their plans to inject worthy blonde-headed youth with a serum to make them super-studs for Germany is thwarted by a lone cow (played with daring, body exposure by Bruna Palmeiro), whose udders soon take on phallic proportions and new ways of being milked.  The musical numbers of this half overall never take off in ways those in the first half do until we get to the near end.  A full-cast (with the miracle cow in center) “Divine Bovine” is a wonderful, farcical, full-voiced “We Are the World” type of number, with each person taking a moment vocally to shine in solo, alternated with everyone else swaying and singing, “Tune into the world ... Ride the waves of existence.”  This is quickly followed by a foot-tapping, well-chorused reprise of “Ich Bin Ein Berliner,” bringing everyone back into the mood of the first act and into both the joys and upcoming sadness of that brief reprise from a Kaiser’s and a Fueher’s repression.

As is always the case, costume rule supreme in a Thrillpeddler’s production, and Glenn Krumbholz delivers yet again an array of color, sparkle, and risqué that smacks of fun and flair.  James Blackwood’s simple design puts us in the dusky mood of a Berlin kabarett, and Nicolas Torre provides the needed lighting for just the right effects.  Hair is a big deal for Thrillpeddler performers, and Flynn DeMarco dons the heads with proper glamour.

Bravo to Scrumbly Koldewyn and Thrillpeddlers for another premiere like none other in San Francisco or anywhere else.  While not totally successful in all its parts, the sum is totally worthwhile and celebrates in Thrillpeddler-expected style the bold and bawdy music of a time when people were just trying to fight for individual rights against a rising tide of hellacious hatred.

Rating; 3 E

The Untamed Tide continues at Thrillpeddlers’ The Hypnodrome, 575 10th Street, San Francisco through May 28, 2016.  Tickets are available at https://app.arts-people.com/index.php?ticketing=thril or by calling 415-377-4202.

Photos by David Allen Studios

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"Hamlet"


Hamlet
William Shakespeare

The Cast of "Hamlet" Awaits Their Roles for the Night
One definition of “shotgun” is, “Aimed at a wide range of things, with no particular target.”  Shotgun Players, a company that played in forty-four different venues before landing in its permanent spot on Ashby Avenue in Berkeley in 2004, once again lives up to its name by opening its Silver Anniversary season with a production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet that offers maybe the widest range of possible options than any production before it in the play’s 400+-year history.  Seven actors, all dressed in white, stand on stage while an audience member draws from a skull (but, of course) slips of paper announcing who will play what parts for the evening’s staging.  As names and roles are called, each picks up a black book with the assigned character name(s) boldly emblazened on it -- books that will help audience members throughout the night know who is who and books that will also be cleverly, often with great impact, used as props.  Once assigned, each dashes off the stage to prepare not only appropriate mindset but also the called-for hair and costume -- in all of the five minutes allotted before first words. 

In the meantime, audience members are buzzing; their hearts are pumping; and the anticipation is sky high how this will all actually play out.  Just knowing that there are 5400 possible combinations of actors and parts (i.e., seven factorial ... do the math) and that it is very likely -- even with the long, projected run in repertory for the next eight months -- that this will be the only time that this particular Hamlet will be seen by any audience ... Now that is exciting!  Shotgun Players has in fact kicked off its 25th season with a Hamlet that surely will become the talk of the town, if not the entire American theatre world – not only because of this innovative, risky casting methodology, but also mainly because of the incredibly powerful, engaging, and heart-pumping result.

While each night’s cast is up for grabs, what is quickly evident is that quality will prevail no matter the actor combination due to incredibly innovative and insightful directorial decisions by Mark Jackson.  This Hamlet immediately breaks the fourth wall, grabs the audience as partners, and keeps them engaged throughout.  We are at times like a live TV audience with our main host, Hamlet, pulling us in as collaborators and co-conspirators.  At other times, we could be in a park watching a San Francisco Mime Troupe production, with a sense of informality and familiarity.  Humor plays a big part in Mark Jackson’s vision and again is used to pull us in, enjoy tongue-in-cheek moments in a play we do not expect to laugh as much as we do, and then smack us on the head with the riveting moments of drama that we know, but have momentarily forgotten, are coming.  High physicality, a constant sense of the immediate, and even a feeling of improvisation make this Hamlet fast-paced even when there are well-timed pauses.  And though it feels we are seeing something for the first time (which in many ways we are), the director’s mark is on everything as all is blocked and timed with purpose, with every one in the cast necessarily knowing all placements for all parts, at all times.  Nothing short of brilliance can be used to describe what Mark Jackson has accomplished.

The other guarantee of excellence beyond any particular night’s cast is a production team whose integrated nature and split-second timing are nothing short than astounding.  Nina Ball’s simple set is still complex in the meanings and diversity of effects it affords.  Two red, chiffon curtains slide in all sorts of combinations across a stage that rises above the main, otherwise blank floor, becoming ways for characters to hide but still to be seen, for Hamlet to joke with the audience as he whimsically plays with the flimsy material, and for actors to show impulsive and violent tempers in the way the curtains retreat or appear.  Costume choices by Christine Crook that must be ready for various shapes and sexes to play any part are also minimal but to a person effecting, with sheer-fabric capes turning a man instantly into a woman or with a sash and tie (along with suddenly slicked-back hair but never a wig) transforming a woman into a king.  Nikita Kadam’s lighting transforms the blank stage into a graveyard or into a king’s inauguration with just the right shadow or a well-placed spot of brilliance. 

Especially high kudos must go to Matt Stines for a sound design that may be one of the best-timed, most exacting, highest effect designs seen on a local stage in many a year.  Background pounding sounds and ticking seconds ominously keep us aware that something is building up to no good.  Other sounds remind us this is a live-audience setting with the sometimes flare and even fun of Hollywood.  But it is when a sword is drawn and when the highly anticipated sword fight between Laertes and Hamlet occurs that Matt Stines proves he is a master sound designer and executioner.  No matter how many Shakespearean sword fights an audience member may have seen anywhere – including Ashland, Stratford, or London – this may be the most exciting, jaw-dropping, and realistic one ever seen with much credit going to Mr. Stines.

And then there are all the actors.  Recall, all actors are essentially stand-ins for all parts.  Just think about that task:  Memorize all of Hamlet; know all entrances, exits, and blockings; be prepared to sword-fight (the one thing all seven actors practice each night before the curtain); and be ready to step in at the pull of a paper slip into some of the most iconic parts of all Shakespeare that most audience members already have in mind how they should be played.  

To review the actors means to give a one-night-only opinion; but the particular ensemble combo of Opening Night was so spectacular that it is actually a shame it may in fact not be seen again.  The evening’s Hamlet, David Sinaiko, took a part made famous by scores of others much more famous than he may ever be, and conveyed a Prince of Denmark that was mind-blowing.  At times blasting a madness that startled with manic hands, popping eyes, and razor-cutting voice and at other times (as in the “To be, not to be” siloquoy) conversing with us as audience in a hushed, haunting, and heartfelt tone, one would think this actor had spent months preparing for this part of all parts (while knowing he has actually been preparing for any one of many parts).  What made this Hamlet so impactful by the night’s random assignment is that the obviously oldest actor (he with white hair) played the young Hamlet and was in fact as much like a tempestuous twenty-something boy as one could hope to see, jumping, tumbling, and falling with fantastic agility and displaying all the buddy-buddy behavior with his bosom friends one associates with a guy still wavering between being a kid and being a man.

Another standout in this particular evening’s configuration was Nick Medina who played both Hamlet’s best friend Horatio and the object of his love, Ophelia.  Sometimes switching roles and sexes with the turn of his back only to face us in the next persona, Mr. Medina used voice, mannerisms, and simple costume switches to maximum effect.  His sorrow-ravaged, mad Ophelia scene was worth the price of the evening’s ticket and rivals any this reviewer has ever seen.

As old Polonius, Cathleen Riddle delivered her just assigned lines with incredible speed that still showed much nuance and notion of a father fixated on a royal wedding between his Ophelia and Hamlet even as the Prince is showing many signs of distracted madness.  El Bah and Megan Trout stepped ably enough into the royal couple Claudius and Gertrude, but they jumped into the hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern roles with hilariously frozen faces like deer in front of headlights each time Hamlet asked of them some question.  Kevin Clarke was a Ghost that stunned Hamlet and Horatio and audience alike with his sudden appearances and his piercing intensity of message.  As Gravedigger, his interactions with Hamlet were like a comic duo and produced the desired levity preceding the next upcoming scenes of blood and death.  As Laertes, Beth Wilmot got the starring minutes of a lifetime in a swordfight that will be long-remembered and much-talked-about by anyone who happened to be there last evening.

Seeing Shotgun Player’s Hamlet only once may not be enough for many of its audience, based on both my own reactions and those I heard from departing fellow theatergoers last night.  Each night will have the excitement and freshness of another opening.  Some casts may work better than others, but the ingenuity of the overall production should ensure each production will be worthwhile.  I, for one. plan to return several times between now and next January – for the sword-fight alone if nothing else.

Rating: 5 E

Hamlet continues its initial, exclusive run through May 8, 2016 and then in repertory through January, 2017, at the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available at https://shotgunplayers.org/  or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Pak Han