Thursday, June 30, 2016

"Present Laughter"


Present Laughter
Noël Coward

The Cast of Theatre Rhino's "Present Laughter"
Intriguing plot?  No, not much there.  New theatrical grounds explored?  No, why break what has already worked for the playwright?  Redeeming social value and food for thought?  Ha, are you kidding?  A rip-roaringly fun night of theatre?  Bingo! 

Noël Coward’s semi-autobiographical farce, Present Laughter -- ready to be produced just as the war broke out in Europe in 1939 and delayed until 1942 for its first staging – is nothing if it is not fun, fun, fun (as long as one is up for a night of high-society, theatre-world, silly shenanigans).  Cheating spouses who cheat anew with best friends (and get caught), young actors (of both sexes) who throw themselves at the feet (and crotch, if possible) of the stage’s current ‘big star,’ slaps on the face and pinches on the butt, chase scenes of screaming ninnies, and a rambling clairvoyant in sock feet – These are just some of the many, formulaic, but somehow still fresh elements of this classic, much-produced period play nearing its eightieth birthday.  Its playwright’s scripts tend to swing to the pink side of things from time to time; but in the current, fabulously acted and directed production of Theatre Rhinoceros, the pink is deep in color and shining with glitter as this Present Laughter accentuates gay in ways that Sir Noël would probably approve but never have done himself.

Noël Coward took his title from the Fool’s Song of Act 2, Scene 3 of Shakespeare’s The Twelfth Night; and in its verse, much of the plot of Present Laughter (such as it is) can be found – hilarious discoveries of secrets, unexpected events and visitors, fixation on youth by those no longer so, and unsure futures where hilarity is the only sure outcome.

Present mirth hath present laughter.
What’s to come is still unsure.
In delay there lies no plenty.
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty.
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

Garry Essendine is a middle-aged star of the English stage who is close to a nervous wreck about being on the other side of forty while continuing to act as if he is in his twenties.  His wild and wide popularity on stage supports an elaborately rich life-style both for himself and his close family of associates (his estranged wife but still best friend, Liz; his manager, Morris; and producer, Henry – not to mention personal secretary, Monica; butler Fred; and sometimes cook and housekeeper, Miss Erikson).  Their lives mirror the furiously popular 1930s big screens of Hollywood where the rich always dress in formal wear and diamonds (and in Essendine’s case, ever-changing, silk dressing gowns) while most of the Depression-era audience is worrying about how their next rent will be paid. 

Essendine is preparing for a major, African theatrical tour while welcoming to his apartment women half his age who somehow seem to lose their own apartment’s latch keys when they are out with him and need a place to hang their heads in repose.  His interests also swing to the side of young men -- even the seemingly half-mad, aspiring playwright, Roland Maule, who bursts into Essendine’s already chaotic life (where his two best friends are sharing the same woman’s bed, unbeknownst to the one of them married to her).  Essendine himself becomes the third leg of this love triangle, and fireworks explode as revelations of betrayals stacked on betrayals uncover themselves.  All the time, the star himself, who is never not on his own stage, bemoans with much over-acting, “My life is one of torment, and no one cares.”

John Fisher as Garry Essendine
Director John Fisher stars as Garry Essendine, bringing to the role seemingly a thousand different unique and outlandish body moves and facial expressions.  He has a great propensity for always looking at himself in some seen or unseen mirror, posing with pronounced smiles and kisses and touches to his self-adored face – all the time speaking as if on stage to anyone (or no one) who is in the room with him.  At times he stomps about like a spoiled child, maybe to be followed by suddenly collapsing onto the floor in a faked faint or by melting into a ball at the feet of his secretary as she tries to ignore his over-done antics.  His voice is affected in hilarious manners, including final consonants that linger for seconds or tones that waver and wiggle much to his (if no one else’s) delight.  What looks spontaneous has clearly been highly choreographed by the actor/director in what has to be a role John Fisher has long craved to play. 

The one miss in interpretation is when Mr. Fisher goes into sustained, pelvic spasms whenever the name of one Essendine’s past trysts with a cute boy is mentioned.  The frequency of the repeated epileptic gyrations of his entire being and the length of each in duration become less and less funny as the play progresses.

Kathryn Wood as Monica Reed & Tina D'Elia as Liz Essendine
While Garry Essendine/John Fisher is the big marquee star of the evening, he is by no means the only act to watch.  Indeed, to a person this is a fantastic cast of characters -- some full of inbred, self-import sophisticate; some, full of sexual hormones popping out of all pores; and some, just full of endearing quirk.  Kathryn Wood is the sometimes mothering, sometimes bossing, always loyal secretary to Essendine, Monica Reed, who does all she can to be the one adult in the room but finally has to give in to participating in wild chases, slamming doors, and sophomoric dramatics.  Essendine’s ex who is still legally married to him, Liz, is played by the handsomely attired, understanding but with some deliciously cynic edge, Tina D’Elia.  The younger females who seem conveniently to lose their apartment keys in order to land a night with the self-indulging star are the high-voiced, almost cartoonish Daphne who sticks to Essendine like fly paper (Adrienne Dolan) and the high-styled, oozing with confidence in her own attraction and import (and having relations in the end with each of three best friends), Joanna Lyppiat (Amanda Farbstein).

Adam Simpson and Carlos Barrera are somewhat like Twiddle-Dee and Twiddle-Dum as Essendine’s manager, Morris, and his producer, Henry.  The latter is playing cuckold to the former’s clandestine affair with his friend’s wife (while he himself is of course having a fling on the side with a starlet), and both are about to be the cuckolds of their famed star and client.  The two actors come off as two peas of the same pod, and this gay-leaning production puts those peas into the same bed in the end.

The more outlandish (how can we get any more outlandish?) characters are responsible for many of the night’s biggest laughs.  Ryan Engstrom is the butler Fred who prances about with swish and speed and who plays a mean piano in the interludes, singing in cockney tones some of Noël Coward’s many original songs.  Adrienne Krug is an absolute hoot as the old housekeeper, who talks to the dead, trudges around in socks and slippers with a constant snarl while smoking a cigarette, and constantly listens for voices saying, “No, No, No ... Christmas Day.”  (Ms. Krug also appears as Daphne’s aging aunt, Lady Saltburn -- yet one more woman who fawns over and paws with lust the self-adoring Essendine.)

John Fisher as Essendine & Marvin Peterle Rocha as Roland Maule
But the cream of the coo-coo crop is Marvin Peterle Rocha as the stalking playwright-to-be who only wants to be near and preferably on top of or at the crotch of Garry Essendine.  The gay dimension of this character is off the Richter scale in ways not in the original play, but Mr. Rocha pulls it off with real skill.  His spastic mouth movements, sputtering words, and general clown-like awkwardness whenever he gets sexually excited around the big star are great comedic moments to behold -- and his sculpted, smooth body is pretty fine to watch, too, by many/most in the audience.

Somehow, John Fisher has not only starred in this Rhino feat of fun, but he has also found the capacity to direct this cast of ten through all sorts of frenzy, capers, and surprises without anyone ever missing a beat.  Much of the joy of the evening is seeing what will be the next elaborate evening wear to emerge through the door, with David Draper absolutely creating eye-popping gowns, hats, footwear, and suits for all those on stage. 

The Art Deco stage of cutout walls that form multi, in-and-out corners and notches is further enhanced by Scenic Designer Gilbert Johnson by furnishings, mirrors, and decorative touches of all sort that announce 1930s, upper-crust society.  Sean Keehan has ensured lighting and sound highlight the well-adorned scene, and Treacy Corrigan has done a particularly good job in coaching the English dialects of each actor.

The evening is a bit long at two-and-a-half hours for so much fluff without a lot of substance or story, but the universal excellence of character portrayal and the tongue-in-cheek direction make most of the minutes totally enjoyable.  Theatre Rhinoceros has truly outdone itself in this season’s bowing production, giving Noël Coward’s Present Laughter some new kink and kitsch while retaining all the high-styled silliness that audiences have loved for three quarters of a century.

Rating: 4 E

Present Laughter continues in its extended run through July 2 at the Eureka Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at www.therhino.org or by calling 1-800-838-3006.

Photos by David Wilson

Monday, June 27, 2016

"August: Osage County"


August: Osage County
Tracy Letts

Betsy Kruse Craig (as Barbara) Comforts Diane Tasca (as Violet)
Pear Theatre jumps in heads over heels into the muck and dirt of the Westons with a cast that proves they all have the mettle to do what it takes to bring Tracy Letts’ script of August: Osage County to full, rambunctious, no-holes-barred life – be it pulling someone’s hair, throwing dishes, or chasing mom around the house screaming at full voice, “I’m in charge now!”  

For my full review, please click to Talkin' Broadway:  http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj48.html

Rating: 4 E

August: Osage County continues through July 10th at 1110 LaAvenida, Mountain View.  Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.

Photo by Ray Renati

Friday, June 24, 2016

"Cabaret"


Cabaret
Joe Masteroff (Book); John Kander (Music); Fred Ebb (Lyrics)


Randy Harrison as MC with the Kit Kat Girls and Boys
Since its 1966 Broadway debut and its initial eight Tonys, the inspiring hit Cabaret has continued to evolve through several major, award-winning revivals in both New York and London, becoming ever darker, starker, and rawer with each new production during its fifty-year history.  The current Roundabout Theatre Company touring version of this Joe Masteroff (book), John Kander (music), and Fred Ebb (lyrics) icon of American Musical Theatre is boiling hot from Minute One with sexually explicit grabbing, rubbing, pinching, slapping, and thrusting of every possible body part by a cast dressed scantily in cheap bras, panties, and garters or in torn t-shirts, leather, and boots.  While we hear in the opening moments our Emcee sing in  “Willkommen” that in this early 1930s Berlin, “We have no trouble here ... Here life is beautiful,” there is an immediate unease, foreboding, and sense of coming doom that is much more visceral than in the original, happier welcome by the Emcee so many of us know from both stage and movie, Joel Grey.  SHN hosts this current startling, unsettling, yet sensational in music and acting Cabaret – a version that speaks volumes to our current times with warnings to pay attention, stay alert, and take a stand before it is too late.

Against a backdrop of increasingly threatening clouds of the coming storm of evil, two parallel love stories serve as the framework for Cabaret  - stories whose doomed trajectories mirror the collapse of the free and accepting society around them.  In a free-flowing, boundary-defying society that has openly flaunted every diversity imaginable, one set of would-be young lovers is a gay man and a sexually fluid woman (still almost a girl), and the other set is an aging German (i.e., Aryan) spinster and a widowed, Jewish merchant.  That they each find attraction with someone not quite in their own mold is the key to each pairing’s demise in the xenophobic world rising around them.

Aspiring writer Clifford Bradshaw arrives on New Year’s Eve from America looking for inspiration for his novel and finds himself suddenly roommate with a nineteen-year-old, British nightclub entertainer, Sally Bowles.  Lee Aaron Rosen does a fine job in portraying this starving writer who quickly becomes embroiled and totally fascinated in the fast-paced, frenetic scene of Berlin’s sleazier nightlife, who finds himself surprisingly falling in love with Sally, and who steps up to propose marriage once Sally finds herself pregnant with the father possibly being one of many possibilities, including evidently Cliff.

Andrea Goss as Sally Bowles
Andrea Goss brings to her Sally Bowles an exquisite combination of a fragile vulnerability suggesting total collapse any moment and of a stubborn streak of inner strength suggesting survival against all odds.  Her naughtiness is both tongue in cheek and erotic as she clicks off lines in her edgy voice in “Don’t Tell Mama,” and her defiance is angrily asserted in high kicks and full voice in “Mein Herr.”  Her Sally provides in the latter song a metaphor for the shockwave about to hit German society as she sings, “It was a fine affair, but now it’s over.”  Later, she ends an initially contemplative “Maybe This Time” with a hopeful but not convincing whisper, “It’s got to happen, happen sometime, maybe this time, I’ll win.”  While both songs are about her love life, her moods, looks, and intonations in each all paint a picture of something dire on the horizon.  But it is in her closing “Cabaret” when Ms. Goss -- with a numbed, shell-shock expression -- sings in half-cry, half-song her Kit Kat Club finale that she epitomizes the reality for her and all around her of the collapse of her and their lives, even as she stubbornly ignores those realities to remain in Berlin.

Shannon Cochran as Fräulein Schneider and Mark Nelson as Herr Schultz
In many respects, the more compelling and heart-wrenching love story of the two is the one between boarding house owner, Fräulein Schneider, and fruit shop merchant, Herr Schultz.  Together, they are delightfully cute as they flirt, sing, and waltz in  “It Couldn’t Please Me More” – also known affectionately as “The Pineapple Song.”  And they are deeply romantic as they duet in “Married,” “For you look up one day and look around and say, some body wonderful married me.”  Mark Nelson’s voice has a quality reminiscent of one coming from a 1930’s radio with its crisp, smiling sound as his Herr Schultz woos his Fräulein.  Shannon Cochran brings incredible depth and breadth to her vocals with a voice that can go from a harsh gravelly quality to one that has spark, lift, and resolution, as is heard in her “So What?”  But when she calls off her marriage to the Jewish Herr Schultz because she is unwilling to stand up to the mocks and threats of her Nazi-loving neighbors and friends, the dignified but resigned and deflated Fräulein Schneider brings the audience to dead silence as she sings in a trembling, sad voice full of forebode, “There’s a storm in the wind ... What would you do?”

Randy Harrison as Emcee
Always watching from a perch above or appearing suddenly in any one scene as a passer-by, a living prop, or a too-knowing observer, the Emcee is like a German everyman who is seeing and participating in both the frenzied world of complete, hell-bent freedom and the approaching dominance of Fascism.  Randy Harrison (the young Justin Taylor in the long-running “Queer as Folk”) takes on the role made so famous by the likes of Tony winners Joel Grey and Alan Cumming and brings his own uninhibited, fervent interpretation as well as a singing voice that can sizzle, snarl, and seduce as needed.  He leaves all restraints behind as he, Lulu (Dani Spieler) and Bobby (Leeds Hill) bring the house down with their “fiddle-de-dees” and XXX-rated shadow play in “Two Ladies.”  He is the voice of repulsive anti-Semitism in his duet with a gorilla girlfriend (Aisling Halpin), “If You Could See Her,” (luring us in first with a song seemingly about tolerance); and he is the citizen listening with intrigue to the scratchy recording of a young boy singing the Nazi anthem, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me.”  His ghostly voice in “I Don’t Care Much” rings with echoes of memories of what was and is full of pain and defeat of what now is.  And when we see in the end who the Emcee really represents and thus what becomes his fate, an audible, collective gasp erupts across the audience, followed by stunned silence except for scattered sounds of soft crying.

The grim, mostly empty stage of black, cracking walls and three red doors appears to be Robert Brill’s way of reminding us that the economy and the outlook is grim, no matter how laissez-faire and loose the norms and nightlife may at first appear in this Berlin of the early 30s.  William Ivey Long’s costumes for the Kit Kat Club Girls and Boys, the MC, and Sally are lewd and luscious at the same time; and for all other characters, exactly how one might picture an era where a Depression has brought the society to its knees.  Cynthia Onrubia has taken Rob Marshall’s original choreography and added many touches that are raw and harsh as well as stunning and spell bounding as so ably carried out by the talented cast.  BT McNicholl’s direction never gives us a moment to wander in our attention and continually builds tension and apprehension of the oncoming storm after having first titillating our sense and sensibilities with all the outlandish shenanigans of the Kit Kat world. 

I have been fortunate to see many outstanding versions of Cabaret, including revivals reprising the starring roles of Messieurs Grey and Cumming in the 1987 and 2014 revivals as well as amazing local productions at TheatreWorks (1996) and San Francisco Playhouse (2008), with this latest production appearing at SHN being a gut-wrenching, moving, and also exuberant addition.  Each time, I am left with two haunting memories.  The first is the earworm that will not go away of the alluring melody with horrific meanings, “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” (sung in this production with chilling beauty by Alison Ewing as Fräulein Kost and Ned Noyes as Ernst Ludwig).  No matter what I do, I cannot seem to stop humming for days afterward the glorious-sounding tune, even as I remind myself that it is a call to Aryan youth and citizens to join the Nazi cause.

The second is Fräulein Schneider’s “What Would You Do” – with my always wondering what would I have done then if I had been either she or Herr Schultz.  Would I have stood up to others’ threats?  Would I have risked my life to save others?  Would I have remained with undue optimism that the inevitable would not happen?  More important, what will I do now, especially with the growing xenophobia and hate-speech/acts erupting all around us? 

Even now, I hear Shannon Cochran as Fräulein Schneider and her stirring, haunting voice probing,

Go on; tell me,
I will listen.
What would you do?
If you were me?”
 
Rating: 5 E

Cabaret continues through July 17, 2016 at at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.

Photo Credits:  Joan Marcus

Monday, June 20, 2016

"Beach Blanket Babylon"


Beach Blanket Babylon
Steve Silver, Creator
Jo Shuman Silver, Producer

Shawna Ferris McNulty as Snow White
First, I must make a confession.  For over thirty-five years of its forty-two-and-counting-year history, I have been a Beach Blanket Babylon fanatic – some might say groupie.  I can count at least twenty-five times I have toured the world with Snow White in search of her Prince Charming, and in fact I have bought out half-to-the-entire venue on several occasions, including for one son’s bar mitzvah weekend.  I have even performed with the full cast for two nights in Davies Symphony Hall (along with over 250 of my brothers of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus).  So, I am clearly not an altogether unbiased reviewer, but this is the first time I have actually reviewed the production that has to-date been seen by nearly six million people worldwide.

And speaking of bar mitzvahs, one of my fondest BBB memories is attending the bar mitzvah performance on Beach Blanket Babylon’s thirteenth birthday.  That show was packed with kitschy Jewish humor and references – an element of every show since has included.  (The current version includes dancing rabbis with humorously labeled bottles of kosher wine on their bouncing, black hats.)  The celebratory performance was followed by a chopped-liver-and-rugelach-rich celebration with the then-living Steve Silver’s family greeting us all as if we were long-time friends.

Through all these years, much has stayed the same even though the show is in constant flux.  At least weekly, updates of book, songs, and characters keep up with the latest headline celebrity happenings, blunders, and gossip.  For over four decades, an ageless Snow White has searched cities around the world for her perfect beau, aided by a saucy, snappy Fairy Godmother (Glinda the Good Witch) who calls her everything but Snow White (Snow Show, Snow Plow, Snow Ball, etc.)   Along the way, she meets both iconic figures that tend not to change year-to-year (Mr. Peanut, Louis XIV, Oprah, Tina Turner, Carmen Miranda, among others) and current political and pop culture characters from the local, state, and national scene. 

Consistent through all the years has been the highest quality singing of bitingly satiric, outrageously funny, but still G-rated versions of popular tunes from rock and Broadway.  And the most famous feature of all is the ridiculously tall head dresses that can often be taller than the performers themselves and can be packed with anything from over-sized grocery items, to books, trees, and animals.  And did I mention the costumes that defy description.  Needless to say, all dress is wild and wooly, strange and silly, over-sized and over-done – each costume bringing the house down in laughter before a word or note is sounded.  All in all, no matter how many times one sees Beach Blanket Babylon, the siren call of Snow’s high, shrilly voice always beckons a return visit to see who the current group of known names being grilled is going to be.

Auditions to be Snow White surely must include mimicking that famed, high-pitched voice from Disney’s original movie; and of course the current Snow, Shawna Ferris McNulty, takes that pitch and raises it another octave in her squeals, shrieks, and singing.  Appearing first in the traditional outfits straight off the animated movie screen, Snow White titters, whines, stumbles, and taps her way around the world with expressions of appropriate naiveté, surprise, envy, and wonder as she meets well over seventy-five different, crazy characters while she looks for her perfect prince.

Reneé Lubin as Glinda
She is set on her journey by a fairy godmother all in pink who has been on the BBB stage for over twenty-six years, Reneé Lubin, and who greets the red-slippered, yellow-skirted Snow with, “Girlfriend, I’m truly scared of you!”  The real magic of this fairy is how many different famous personas she will become throughout the evening.  With a head brimming with books, she is Oprah; with a Hershey’s Bar and a cologne bottle, Coco Chanel; with snake-like hair locks shooting in all directions from her head, Whoopi; and with a multi-foot column of swishing hair that resembles a giant duster, Tina Turner.  But when in all blue glitters and bangles from hair to toe, she is true diva as she sings “Ain’t Misbehaving” after arriving on stage our of a lion’s mouth.  A voice that pierces the air in trumpeted clarity, a personality that
reaches into the audience and touches each person individually, and a compact body that dances in moves full of fun and charm – Reneé has been and continues to be a star to see and see again.


Tammy Nelson as a Jewish Mother
But wait.  Here comes another twenty-year veteran, Tammy Nelson, with a giant pizza on her head, four dancing chefs in tall white hats, and a voice to bring down the walls of Jericho as she belts, “Be Italian.”  As a comedian, there is no match, meeting Snow as a chain-smoking, cross-eyed, lip-quivering woman walking the trashy Montmartre to lure Snow into the seedier life of Paris.  Whether a bejeweled Jewish mama in an “Oy Vey” apron with her huge shopping cart full of kosher goodies, a tragic Adele making yet another phone call (“Hello Again”), or a cowgirl from the wild west singing a rambunctious “I Am Woman” with Reneé, Tammy proves why she is and has been a crowd-pleaser for so long.

Curt Branom as King Louis
When asked about his happiest-ever moment in the show, Curt Branom recalls the night he got to be on stage with Carol Channing (which happened to be the last night founder Steve Silver saw the show before succumbing to AIDS).  He too is a long-timer and a true icon for anyone like me who has seen the show multiple times through the decades.  Currently, Curt is chest-bearing President Putin, who wears a box of Ritz Crackers for, what else, a “Puttin’ on the Ritz” tap dance.  He is also the uptight, self-righteous Michele Bachman, declaring, “I’ll make you straight if you are gay” and a wild-haired, wild-eyed Bernie Sanders.  But the part that has been Curt’s reign seemingly forever is as the high-heeled, high-voiced Louis XIV whose staccato, multi-octave laugh is brand-able and who thwarts Snow’s advances by gaily and flamboyantly proclaiming, “I’ll be a twosome, thanks to Gavin Newsome.”

Catlin McGinty as Barbra Streisand
This cast is so deep and so talented.  Jacqui Arslan is not only gun-toting Sarah Palin but also Demo-leader Nancy Pelosi and a number of contemporary fifteen-minute-in-fame stars.  Caitlin McGinty brings her own crossed eyes as wells as foot-long finger nails to sing a dramatic, self-obssessed “People” as Barbra Streisand (“People, who needs people, ‘cause I’m the most wonderful person in the world”).   Derek Lux is a stimulus-package-offering Bill Clinton toting his oversized Viagra as well as the magazine cover beauty, Caitlin Jenner.  Albert Hodge is President Obama, a non-PC witch doctor, and a fabulous James Brown who joins Reneé in a show-stopping “I’ll Be There.”  And of course, Trump had to make an appearance; Scott Reardon insures the egomaniac is as stupid and crazy on stage as he is in real life.

A visit to Paris, France in the Fugazi Club would never be complete without dancing, sexy poodles.  Kirk Mills leads the pack with his pink bows and excellent dancing.  He returns in a number of roles, including Ted Cruz singing, “Born near the USA;” but his climatic role comes as the never-say-die Elvis, who finally becomes the “wise-men-say” Prince Charming that Snow White (now converted into cone-nippled Madonna) has been long searching.

And this cast is backed with the best of rock bands that just go and go and go in full exuberance.  Steve Salgo is only one of several excellent and entertaining members in their dark sunglasses, and he happens to be in his thirtieth year on trumpet and flugelhorn.  Bill Keck is conductor and music director of this star-studded cast; and Kenny Mazlow somehow conceives how to get so many different characters on and off stage and how to choreograph their many dance routines – all without the slightest hitch.  While Steve Silver designed all the original costumes, scenes, props, and skyscraper hats, Matthew James (props, hats), Timothy Santry (wigs), and Monique Motil (costumes) carry on and admirably expand his brilliance.

So, how can all these guys and gals keep doing this night after night, seven times a week, year in and year out?  Reneé Lubin says, “Each night is as different as the audience ... The cast is just as excited to entertain a ‘jazzed’ audience as they are to be entertained.”  And Curt Branom adds, “What I really love is our audiences (who are) so much fun and an integral part of our show.”

All to say, whether you are one of the few who has never accompanied Snow White in her hunt for a hunk or if you have been round the world with her dozens of times, now is the time to get that ticket and head back to Steve Silver’s Beach Blanket Babylon.  I am here to attest the show, the cast, and the band are as good or better than ever and, together, are an only-in-San-Francisco visit to be made by every native and tourist alike.

Rating: 5 E

Beach Blanket Babylon continues forever (hopefully), Wednesdays through Sundays (with two show on Saturdays and Sundays) at the Club Fugazi, 678 Beach Blanket Babylon Blvd., San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at https://beachblanketbabylon.com/tickets/ or by calling the box office at 415-421-4222.

Photos by Rick Markovich

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

"The Invisible Hand"


The Invisible Hand
Ayad Akhtar

Craig Marker, Jason Kapoor & Pomme Koch
For many of the Popes of centuries past, the televangelists of the late twentieth century, or the ISIS leaders in Iraq and Syria of 2016, dogmatic and self-righteous religious zealousness appears often to lead to great accumulations of wealth at the expense of others.  The similarities of religious and financial devotion and pursuits are central in Ayad Aktar’s The Invisible Hand, a title that refers to Adam Smith’s coined, eighteenth-century phrase to describe the unobservable market force that enables a free market to reach and maintain equilibrium.  That same title might also apply to the power strict religious doctrines and their leaders often seem to have over their faithful’s minds and lives, as if the followers were guided by some unseen hand that could turn also around and strike them down at any moment they wander too far outside the dogma.  The tension between being guided and being controlled by the joint forces of religion and finance is central in Ayad Aktar’s spine-tingling, sweat-producing tale of suspense, especially when political in-fighting enters the mix.  With masterful direction that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats and an astounding ensemble that give award-deserving performances, Marin Theatre Company presents a don’t miss, must-be-seen The Invisible Hand.

Nick Bright is a banker who understands how to manipulate and ride the ups and downs of the markets to make others money – and seemingly himself since he has $3.3 million tucked away in offshore accounts on the Cayman Islands.  Unfortunately as the play opens, he is being held prisoner by a Pakistani, Islamic, militant group who has kidnapped him, hoping his bank will cough up $10 million for his return.  Getting no such response, its impatient followers and his guards seem more than ready to make Nick a dead example of what happens when the payoff is nil.  However, Nick desperately but convincingly suggests he could take his own $3.3 million and turn it into the ten (or more) demanded by playing the world finance markets.  His captors, who claim through their Iman they want the money to repair roads in poor communities, agree to give him a chance to raise his own ransom.

Pomme Koch as Bashir & Craig Marker as Nick
What follows is at times almost like a university class in economics.  As Nick pumps instructions into one captor at a computer keyboard -- a young, handsome, and often hot-headed Bashir -- terms like puts, futures, options, and shorts are bantered around with much urgency, seriousness, and speed.  Bashir begins to get excited over his new assignment to work with his latest prisoner, especially when the first day renders a payoff of 700,000 rupees.  Bashir’s earlier, expressed anger of everything this smart, young, American banker represents (“You and your fucking interest, eating up the world like cancer”) turns into a personal zeal and drive that is palpable.  “I can’t get enough of this stuff ... I kinda wish I’d gone to uni for this stuff,” he blurts as the two would-be enemies act more and more like pals playing an online video game.  Bashir learns a lot from Nick and seems both to relish it and to understand it, especially taking to heart that “Bulls make money; bears make money; pigs get slaughtered.”  He also comes to understand, as will become ever more evident, Nick’s conclusion that “One thing that doesn’t change about people ... When you get money, you want more.”

But in this world of high-stake finance, politics and religion are equal if not more powerful players, too.  With drones humming in the background of the cinderblock cell and occasional bomb blasts detected, even among the three kidnappers loyalties and hierarchy continually shifts.  Sheer moments of terror punctuate the market madness as tempers rise between captor and captive and between the captors themselves.  Where is the money actually going and for what causes?  Who is profiting, the poor or ... ?  What defines who is Iman and who is not; and does it really have any thing to do with religion?  In the middle of it all is Nick, fighting for his life while also at times having the time of this life playing this game of high finance in the world of commodities like potatoes.  One minute, he acts as he is in control; the next, he is yet again facing imminent, terrifying death.

Craig Marker & Barzim Akhavan
Bay Area favorite, Craig Marker, has once again upped his game as a talented actor as he takes on the role of Nick Bright.  The breadth of emotions he displays is mind-blowing.  Trembling full of tears and screams in sheer fright as a gun clicks at his head, yelling and stomping about in passionate anger at those who hold his life in their hands, or gleefully prancing up and down with arms flailing as he dictates to his partner Bashir a map to fortune are only some of many examples of the eclectic, acting output displayed. 

But Mr. Marker’s is only one of four stellar performances.  As Bashir, Pomme Koch is also riveting in every respect.  Cruel and heartless turns into collegial and collegiate and then back to calculating and callous.  His supposed motives jerk wildly about as much as his moods and are as mysterious at times as what is really going on inside the mind behind those deep, dark eyes. 

Jason Kapoor as Dar & Craig Marker as Nick
Equally powerful are Barzim Akhavan as the tall, clad-in-white Iman Saleem and Jason Kapoor as the lap-dog underling, Dar.  Each has moments of conversing with signs of sympathy and even intrigue with their captured American, and each turns quickly into a fountain of hatred, revenge, and venom against him and all those who have come before him, those “wealthy Americans looting our country.”

Jasson Minadakis has left nothing to chance in his direction of these fine actors and this tight script.  The shifts and twists of the plot, the alliances made and broken as well as hints of humor and blasts of deadly alarm flow with a sequence that is quick-paced yet slow enough to absorb to the bone.  Clearly, this director has discovered how to milk every ounce of this powerful script and how to ensure each actor digs deep to discover newfound territories.

The sullen, stark cell with one lone, barred window serves as prison by night and a trading floor of sorts by day.  Kat Conley’s design, including a doorway that opens to a sobering outside, is just the right mixture of stark and scary.  York Kennedy’s lighting casts the needed corner shadows, sudden blackouts, and harsh spotlights needed to fill out the scene.  Far-off sounds of fighting and overhead surveillance craft remind us of the world outside the imprisoned walls, thanks to Chris Houston’s excellent sound design.  Callie Floor has dressed each character in convincing garb of the region and their position within it and has insured we understand the horrible and worsening conditions Nick Bright is undergoing, by the state of his clothes alone.

Who is victim and who is victimizing is not always clear in Ayad Akhtar’s play.  Who is the winner and what does it mean to win in this war of finances and religion and politics is similarly muddled.  Few answers and many questions are raised in watching this gripping story that could be similar to one relayed in the news at any time in our present world.  Ayad Akhtar and Jasson Minadakis partner as playwright and director to present a superb cast in Marin Theatre Company’s thought-provoking The Invisible Hand.

Rating: 5 E

Marin Theatre Company continues its extended, Bay Area premiere of Ayad Akhtar’s The Invisible Hand through July 3, 2016 at 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley.  Tickets are available online at https://tickets.marintheatre.org/Online/ or by calling 415-388-5208.

Photo: Kevin Berne

"Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike"


Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
Christopher Durang
Palo Alto Players


Patricia Tyler, Walter M. Mayes, Judith Miller & Jimmy Mason
The 2013 Tony winner for Best Play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, has been produced coast-to-coast and now lands on the stage of Palo Alto Players as the final installation of the company’s 85th Anniversary, “Toniest Season Ever.”  With superb, imaginative, tongue-in-cheek direction by Linda Piccone and a cast of weird and wacky characters, the season’s bowing production is definitely a hit not to be missed.

Follow the link to my Talkin' Broadway, full review:  http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj47.html 

Rating: 5 E

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike continues through June 26
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

Monday, June 6, 2016

"The Velocity of Autumn"


The Velocity of Autumn
Eric Coble


Mark Anderson Philips & Susan Greenhill
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is staging a truly uplifting and heart-warming production of  Eric Coble’s The Velocity of Autumn that does not dwell on decline and death as much as on the freedom to act and to be as one feels compelled during whatever amount of life is left.  

For my full review, please link to Talkin' Broadway: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj46.html.


Rating: 5 E

The Velocity of Autumn continue through June 26, 2016 in production by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.  Tickets are available online at http://www.theatreworks.org/box-office/ or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday – Friday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Saturday – Sunday, Noon – 6 p.m.

Photo by Kevin Berne
  

"The Village Bike"


The Village Bike
Penelope Skinner

Eliss Stebbins as Becky & Nick Medina as John
When one spouse makes amorous moves in bed for some late-night hanky-panky and the other spouse responds to each approach, “Not tonight ... I’ve got an early start... I’ve got to make lasagna tomorrow... It’s a bit hot ... It’s the weather,” a natural inclination would be to assume the former is the horny husband and the latter, the tired, not-interested wife.  But this opening scene is only the tip of the iceberg for a series of sex-role reversals pregnant Becky and hubby John are about to display.  He is the one reading baby books, going gaga over a new crib mobile, and scouring the neighborhood for friends’ baby things to borrow.  All the while, she is the one parading about day and night in a suggestive nightgown; turning on to porn while he sleeps; and making eyes and come-ons to the plumber.  The world of male/female assumptions and stereotypes still stubbornly and generally held in our post-women’s-liberated world are given a good shake-up in Penelope Skinner’s The Village Bike.  Shotgun Players presents a well acted, funny, and often sexually raw production that titillates, teases, and sometimes even shocks our senses.  That is, until the end; but more about that, later.

Recently pregnant Becky, now on summer holiday from teaching, has yet to show much change in her still-slim, petite body.  What she is showing is a drive and desire to free herself from her husband’s over-protective hovering to monitor every morsel she eats and drop she drinks and his constant focus on the upcoming baby rather than on her.  Becky wants a bike to ride the countryside around the English village they recently moved to (and fantasizes riding downhill with no hands on the handlebar).  She wants her husband John to respond to her feeling his crotch or licking his neck and not roll over with the pillow over his head.  And she is increasingly willing to do whatever it takes, with whomever it takes, to relieve the gnawing, sexual desires inside her and to re-enact scenes she in now addicted to watching from her husband’s stashed collection of porn (classics like “Get Me Wet, Mr. Plumber”).

Elissa Stebbins breaks wide open many societal boundaries of what a pregnant woman ‘should’ be in her gutsy, lusty, and often funny portrayal of Becky.  When a widowed plumber named Mike (David Sinaiko) actually arrives to attend to her “sweaty pipes” (initially, just those of the house), she happens to greet him in a short, silky robe that keeps slipping off her shoulder to reveal a protruding breast peeking from her nightie.  The two do a kind of mating dance with not-too-subtle hints from either of what is really the desired outcome of his visit; but it is all just a rehearsal for later action by the teasing, not-quite-ready-to-pounce Becky.  

Elissa Stebbins as Becky & Kevin Clarke as Oliver
The real play for fun comes when local actor Oliver shows up in costume (tight pants, knee boots, and a flair of overt sexiness) to deliver the bike she is buying from him.  Sparks begin to fly, and a flame is kindled that will take these two on a month-long fling (while his wife is away) where those porn scenes will come to full life, with new ones created along the way.  Daring desire is written all over Kevin Clarke’s steady stare of seduction from eyes that scream for a hot affair.  He pushes the initially timid Becky without forcing and later becomes the starring partner of her fulfilled fantasies with full gusto and grit. 

When with Oliver, Ms. Stebbins uses every ounce of her being to express on the outside the fantasies and desires that have been building up on her inside.  When not with him, she is bored but polite when an overly exuberant neighbor, Jenny, comes with arm-loads of baby things and wanting to talk about nothing but how wonderful Becky’s husband, John, is.  Jenny is an out-of-work PhD in theoretical astrophysics who cannot find an au pair, has a husband who roams the world doing good and is never home, and two obnoxious (or at least very normal) young boys driving her nuts.  Bel El is delightful as the properly English, overly expressive, intensely lonely Jenny who has trouble keeping her own adoring eyes and hands off clueless John and who so wants uninterested Becky as her new, best friend.

Nick Medina as John
And then there is the cuckolded, saintly John himself.  Nick Medina is just too good to believe as the husband who rushes to meet his wife’s every desire – except her sexual ones, that is.  He is the one who really wishes the baby were inside of him so that he can insure its safety and well being (not trusting his wife on her bike or her penchant for vodka).  Mr. Medina’s John is on the surface both ideal and idealistic (while also ignoring of the many signs around him of his wife’s shenanigans); but under that sweet smile and domestic nature, there is something hidden and disturbing.  We begin to understand that there is a controlling nature about this goody-two-shoes that is a bit creepy.  Just mention shopping at Tesco or bringing home a plastic bag and see how this earth-and-wife-protecting John reacts.

Nina Ball once again has created an excellent set with lots of details, nooks, and crannies to allow a small English cottage and other required scenes to come to full life.  Hanna Birch Carl excels in the sound department as loud interruptions of pounding pipes remind us that something is sorely amiss and about to explode in this little cottage (not to mention a roaring windstorm that is so real in sound to almost shake us in our seats).  Valera Coble’s costumes and Ray Oppenheimer’s lighting are spot-on in highlighting shifts and changes in mood and events of the story.

For the first ninety per cent of Penelope Skinner’s script and Patrick Dooley’s direction, we as audience are jolted with sexy fun and frolic to question our own limiting assumptions about sex roles and mores that may be more defining of our attitudes and judgments than we might want to admit.  For example, what, if anything, does make us uncomfortable when it comes to women, especially mothers-to-be, liking pornography or making advances behind their trusting husband’s back?  What should be the response to “I’m done with sex” from one’s spouse?  How core is a vibrant sex life for us; and what judgments do we make about the drives, desires, and demands of others, including our own spouses? 

But then this play takes a curious, frankly disappointing turn at the end for some unknown, unexplained reason in script or direction.  The playwright falls back in line with just the sex roles we came in expecting to see in ways that I find flabbergasting and exasperating.  Suddenly, it is if the actors were handed scripts to a different play and asked to insert them into this one.  The ending could have gone in so many other directions, it seems to me; but where it does go is a bit unsatisfying and bewildering.

That said, the first two-plus hours of The Village Bike are fun, thought-provoking, and well-worth a trip to see this second production of the twenty-fifth season of Shotgun Players and its cast in full-year repertory.  And perhaps to others, the ending will make much more sense.

Rating: 4 E

The Village Bike continues through June 26, 2016 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