Sunday, May 21, 2017

"Sordid Lives"


Sordid Lives
Del Shores

Luke Brady, Marie O'Donnell, Cat Luedtke, Michaela Greeley & Scott Cox
Now who’s to judge who’s a saint or a sinner,
Lord, it’s tough enough to trudge from brunch to dinner.
...
It’s a bitch sortin’ out our sorry little sordid lives.

Mama’s dead: Tripped over GW’s wooden legs while screwing him in a cheap motel.  GW’s wife, Noleta, is a mess; Mama’s sister, Sissy, is trying to console the poor thing (Bless her heart) with tea and Valium (“Take the whole bottle”).  Mama’s grown girls, Latrelle and LaVonda, are fighting over whether Mama should wear her mink with the fake eyes in the middle of a Winters, Texas summer as she lies all prettied up in the coffin.  Brother Boy – who does the best Tammy Wynette imitation you can imagine -- is still in that crazy house after being outed twenty-three years ago to Mama by his best friend, Wardell.  And Mama’s grandson, Ty (the cute TV-soap star), is on his twenty-seventh therapist of the past three years trying to figure out how, if ever, he can be his openly gay self in a family like this one.

To top it off, Mama (good Christian that she was) had become best friends and was hanging out with that white trash, cheap, bar singer, Bitsy Mae Harling.  Yes, honey, this family – like poor Tammy herself – has “more trouble than Christ on the cross.” 

It has taken over twenty years; but thank the Good Lord, Del Shores’ much-awarded play and later, gay-fave movie, Sordid Lives, has finally reached a live stage in San Francisco thanks to New Conservatory Theatre Center (which previously had hugely successful runs with the playwrights’ Southern Baptist Sissies and Yellow).  And what a laugh-filled, heart-warming production it is under the able direction of Dennis Lickteig.  The parade of odd and wonderful characters we meet is over-the-top in Southern manners, mannerisms, and mores (or lack there-of).  However, under Mr. Lickteig’s direction, the fun the cast has with those idiosyncrasies – even when exaggerated to match and exceed the stereotypes we all carry of our Southern sisters and brothers – is never done mean-heartedly or even with ridicule.  There is a gentle, loving touch given to this collection of oddities, even as we are in tears laughing at their drawls, their choice of wear and wig, and the tangled situations they now find their sordid lives.

Divided into four chapters, we are first introduced to the women of the family, who go to the bathroom to “tittle,” call a penis a “tally wacker,” and faithfully report to each other the latest gossip heard at the local Piggly-Wiggly (like the poor clerk who has “gotten so big, you could move in”).  They are gathering one-by-one in the living room of Sissy (Mama’s sister), who declares up front, “I’d never quit smoking if I knew Sister was going to die.”  

We soon learn she’s right.  She shouldn’t have quit – mainly because the rubber band deterrent on her arm that Michaela Greeley keeps snapping when her Sissy wants a drag – accompanied by a loud “Ouch” and a three-syllable-version of “Shi-ii-iit” -- is clearly not working.  With her teased hair sprayed into perfection and half-stockings barely reaching her knees, Ms. Greeley is the perfect picture of a grieving (sort of) sister ready to offer Texas hospitality and sympathy to all who enter.

Cat Luedtke, Michaela Greeley & Marie O'Donnell
Into the house comes weepy Noleta Nethercott (Shannon Veon Kase), wife of Mama’s wooden-leg lover, totally distraught in her pink-sponge curlers – but feeling much better when she loads up between tears with some fried chicken.  High-and-mighty Latrelle (Marie O’Donnell), who just cannot believe Mama “shacked up in a motel with a low-life with two wooden legs,” comes by to solicit her Aunt Sissy’s help in the mink-stole controversy.

Coming to ensure Mama gets to wear her favorite stole to the Pearly Gates to meet in style her Maker is LaVonda, whose own super-tight jeans, inch-long false eyelashes, and pink-flowered purse of plastic make their own fashion statement.  Among this bevy of hilarious beauties, Cat Luedtke’s LaVonda is particularly one-hundred-percent a hoot – but a hoot with a heart for Latrelle’s gay son, Ty, whom her sister, Latrelle, is stuck in flat denial that her son is “homosexual” – even if he did appear off-Broadway in a play with all men, stark-naked. 

Shannon Kase, Gary Giurbino, Nathan Tylutki, Robin Gabrielli & Cat Luedtke
Chapter Two introduces us to some of the good, ol’ boys of Winters, Texas in Bubba’s Bar – just one of the several tongue-in-cheek set designs of Kuo-Hao Lo with detailed touches and props by Ting Na Wang meant to tickle our innards.  GW Nethercott (Gary M. Giurbino) is drinking away his sorrow in losing his one true love, Mama, while not worrying too much about his distraught wife, Noleta.  Meanwhile, Wardell “Bubba” Owens (Scott Cox) is feeling guilty about his betrayal twenty-three years ago of his pal, Brother Boy; and he has really had enough of his brother’s Cat’s Cradle string tricks (a show unto themselves for us to behold) and his stupid, “Swine Weigh-In” story about a pig’s tragic demise (his brother being Odell, played by Nathan Tylutki).  Wardell has even had it with GW’s blubbering about his now-dead, beloved Peggy (Mama): “Get off the cross, buddy; we need the wood.” 

Each actor has moments now and as the chapters unfold to excel in his quirky ways, and collectively they are moved to some dramatic transformations after Laverne and Shirley (aka as Noleta and LaVonda) arrive, loaded with whiskey and guns. 

Melissa O'Keefe & Scott Cox
Finally in Chapter Three, we meet cross-dressing Brother Boy; and the wait is well worth it, given the sweet, silly, and snappy interpretation Scott Cox gives to the admirer of Kitty, Loretta, and his proclaimed soul-mate, Tammy.  Just hearing Brother Boy say “O-kaaaay” brings the house down.

Brother Boy’s therapy duel of wits and ways with breast-showing, booze-swishing Dr. Eve Bolinger – who wants to use her dehomsexualization of Earl as her ticket to get on Oprah – is too funny and too sad at the same time, especially given current politics in some states.  Melissa O’Keefe pulls no punches in her betrayal of the horny, fame-seeking doctor but does pull every g-string she can to get more of our laughs.

Chapter Four is the funeral.  You just gotta be there to believe it.  Priceless.

Opening each chapter is the beautifully tuned, country twang of Bitsy Mae Harling, played in leathered-up style by Amy Meyers, who also takes some nice jaunts down Gospel Lane as she accompanies herself on guitar.  Each chapter also begins with a scene of Ty Williamson, Latrelle’s actor son, having his own therapy session to talk about his past and ongoing journey to come out to colleagues and family – not an easy road to travel in rural Texas.  Amidst all the souped-up hilarity of the evening, Luke Brady reminds us of what he, Brother Boy, and countless other gay men face – still to this day – in coming to grips with their sexual orientation in a landscape of those who think of them as perverse fags.  Kudos especially goes to Mr. Brady for an exceptionally moving and authentic performance.

So much of the script’s titters and tee-hees are enhanced by the costumes of Wes Crain and the wigs of David Carver-Ford, both of which result in outright guffaws when characters first walk into our sight.  Patricia Reynoso has to be commended for the dialect coaching she has given each of these drawling wonders.  Maxx Kurzunski’s lighting  and Ryan Lee Short’s sound designs cap off a creative team’s efforts that results in a production fun, funny, and fantastic.

Even for someone who has seen the movie a dozen times (and thinks only Leslie Jordon could ever play Brother Boy), there are many new and renewed laughs to come while reveling in NCTC’s San Francisco premiere of Del Shore’s Sordid Lives.  I can think of no better way to gear oneself up for Pride 2017 than first a visit to Winters, Texas.

Rating: 5 E

Sordid Lives continues in extension through June 24, 2017 on the Decker Stage of The New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema

Saturday, May 20, 2017

"Monsoon Wedding"


Monsoon Wedding
Sabrina Dhawan (Book); Vishal Bhadrwaj (Music); Susan Birkenhead (Lyrics)

Members of the Cast of Monsoon Wedding
With one grand splash of kaleidoscopic colors surrounded by pulsating beats of uplifting music and bodies moving and dancing in all directions, one opening number (“Song of My Heart”) tells us all we need to know that the world premiere Monsoon Wedding is going to be a jaw-dropping, wow affair.  Overlooking the domes and spires of a Delhi skyline, workers and family members bustle about while joyously singing, “Let the music fill the air, happiness is everywhere” in busy preparation for two families separated by an ocean about to unite in their children’s matrimony.  The Indian-American groom-to-be arrives for his arranged marriage, singing with a big, goofy smile, “Everything I’ve dreamed is here.” Meanwhile, his young, Delhi-native bride-to-be is tearfully pleading with her married, TV-host boyfriend to leave his wife and marry her, saving her from this arranged, sure-to-be disaster arriving from (Can you believe it?) New Jersey. 

Oops!  Yes, in one opening number we have all the tantalizing set-up needed to hook us right back into the story that Sabrina Dhawan first introduced in her 2001 movie of the same name, Monsoon Wedding.  Once again employing the wondrous creativity and inventive genius of Mira Nair as director and now also bringing in Vishal Bhadrwaj and Susan Birkenhead respectively to create music and lyrics, Berkeley Repertory Theatre has seemingly spared no expense for this first staging of the film-turned-musical.  The colors and glamour of Arjun Bhasin’s exotic, flowing costumes are immediately eye-popping and continue to amaze scene after rainbow-hued scene.  The sets and settings designed by Mikiko Suzuki Macadams are massive in scale and wondrous in detail, constantly shifting magically and effortlessly; and they are enhanced in fun and often-funny ways by the projections of Peter Nigrini.  Lighting by Donald Holder is whimsical, adding its own color, Far Eastern feels, and wonder.  And Scott Lehrer has ensured that city, storm, and celebration sounds surround us from all directions at just the right moment. 

All in all, the premiere of Monsoon Wedding repeatedly takes us to the brink of sensory overload, ensuring our eyes are always open wide in amazement, our toes are often tapping as our bodies are gently swaying, and certainly that the grins on our faces are wider than a Cheshire Cat’s.

The only real issue with this premiere version of Monsoon Wedding is that many – but certainly not all – of Ms. Birkenhead’s lyrics are frankly too close to being banal.  Stuck in rhyming schemes better suited to children’s nursery poems, lines are too often predictable and frankly, just a bit silly.  In one otherwise delicious number by all the women of the bride’s family (“Aunties are Coming”), the clever choreography with its comedic whimsy loses some of its edge with lyrics like “Long ago I was yummy, now he calls me Mummy.”  In another number delightful in the choreography of Lorin Latarro where the married couples of the two families dance in the styles and moves of when they first met/dated (“You Will Learn”), it is hard not to roll eyes at the repeated rhymes such as “You will learn to love each other, like I did with your mother.” 

With such lines, some of the twenty-plus songs do not actually do much to enhance the musical’s progression, but serve only fill up space.  What often saves them and helps us ignore their lyrical content are all the production elements that engulf us with an array of colors and pulsing movements along with a score that is both contagiously exciting and hypnotically mesmerizing.  And then there is the fact that the songs are delivered by a cast of overall superb, near-perfection voices and talented band members (under the music direction of Greg Kenna).

In Foreground, Kuhoo Verma & Michael Maliakel
Tops among those vocal performances are the four leads who play the upstairs/downstairs love duos of the musical: Arranged-marriage pair Hemant Rai and Aditi Verman plus event planner PK Dubey and household servant Alice.  As the tall, slender Hemant, Michael Maliakel immediately establishes himself as the voice of the night.  From his opening notes, he delivers a rich clarity that causes one to lean in, not wanting to miss any of the nuances he brings in the vocal waves, tremors, and melodic glides that bridge in sound and approach his American and Indian backgrounds.  When joined by the voice of Kuhoo Verma (Aditi, his intended) – a voice that is light, young, and sweet while also blossoming into full maturity as her character’s convictions for true love solidify – the two shine in numbers like “Could You Have Loved Me” and “Breathe In, Breathe Out.”

As the wedding planner PK Dubey, Namit Das is both endearing and altogether hilarious with his fast, clipped talk; his wild hamming up of songs and dances; and his puppy-love-filled eyes when he is around the woman who captures his heart, Alice (Anisha Nagarajan).  Each also has a singing voice that strikes all the right chords time and again. 

Namit Das
When PK is joined by three workers (Ali Momen as Congress, Andrew Prahshad as Tameesuddin, and Levin Valayil as Lottery) in “We Are Like This Only,” the four are clown-like in their horsing around as they use every, possible body muscle to accentuate their fine harmonies in coordinated, exaggerated arm-and-leg-filled dances.  And speaking of horses, PK and Alice are joined by a cartoon-clad cluster of travelers as he chases after her train on a horse (of sorts) in a number (“Chuk, Chuk”) that is like watching live animation – especially with the thrilling projection, set, and lighting magic that is brought to bear.

The four would-be lovers who will undergo twists, turns, and traumas before solidifying their marital choices join together in one of the musical’s best numbers, “Neither Here Nor There.” Individually, as twosomes, and finally as a quartet, their voice swerve and swell in haunting, moving waves of India-induced harmonies.  The effect is emotionally stunning.

But there are many other outstanding performances among this large cast.  Foremost is Sharvari Deshpande as Ria Verma, the orphaned niece whom Aditi’s parents have raised as their own.  There is a sad and secret story within her that emanates throughout her seamless traverse of sung scales high and low -- particularly in the arresting, intense “Be a Good Girl” where travails long held deep inside burst into the open.  Her courage of revelation and the impact it has on her family – especially Aditi’s father, Lalit (Jaaved Jaaferi – is one of the most impressive, memorable, and importantly serious parts of this, Bollywood-like fairytale.

Palomi Ghosh & Namit Das
In a story sometimes half-sung, half-spoken, but concluding in a rich, deep voice coming from her heart, PK’s ‘nanni’ (played by Palomi Ghosh) tells of her own bout with forbidden love in “Love is Love” as PK struggles what to do as a Hindi guy who has fallen for a Christian gal.  (Ms. Ghosh is also amusing and heart-warming as a humped-over, but vigorous grandmother always on her cell prodding her grandson toward the altar -- any altar -- before she dies.) 

And it would be a sin to overlook the repeated fun and joy that Monsoon Bissell brings to her role as “Auntie” Shashi.  Her bigger-than-life presence in body, heart, laugh, and even song is yet one more reason this cast is a total winner in selling the story and delivering the production numbers of Monsoon Wedding.

So in the end, the lyrics may sometimes be silly and a few numbers may seem to be last-minute add-ons as a new musical is born; but the hypnotic music itself, the overall grandeur of the production, and the fabulous insights of the director in bringing a talented cast to stellar heights of performance make Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s world premiere maybe the biggest must-see of the season.

Rating: 4.5 E

Monsoon Wedding continue in an extended, premiere run through July 2, 2017 , in production on the Main Stage of Berkeley Repertory’s RodaTheatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/ or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photo Credits: Kevin Berne

Friday, May 19, 2017

"Twins"


Twins
Stuart Bousel

Rob Talbott, Kyle McReddle, Andrew Chung & Kyle Goldman (Apollo)
Revenge killings, murders of your children, repeated rapes, fiery tortures, being transformed into animals or rocks – All are just part of the casual sharing and one-upping conversation taking place among the gods in bars and hangouts of the afterworld.  As it turns out, many of their woes and demises are as a result of the rivalries, jealousies, and impetuosities of Zeus’ fraternal-twin kids, pretty-boy Apollo and his sister, virgin-hunter Artemis.  In his dark comedy, Twins, now in world premiere at PianoFight, Stuart Bousel explores the lives and times of these two mythical heroes and sibling rivals, all done with tongue fully in cheek and Pandora’s Box opened to reveal dirty secrets galore.

Artemis and Apollo are the offspring results of a tryst between Zeus and Leto, something the wife of the almighty one, Hera, is not too pleased about but learns she has little power to stop the births or harm the mother (but that does not stop her from trying).  From Day One when the two pop out fully grown, the sister and brother are in each other’s faces to tease and taut, beginning an eternity of rivalry, often with results disastrous for other gods and mortals.  Their journey through resentments and revenges toward some sense of love and reconciliation is the plot line of Stuart Bousel’s play, mostly told through a parade of lower gods and goddesses that share both their adoration and their abhorrence of these two.  The revelations come from heavenly hosts in modern dress; in dialects hilariously exaggerated and from all corners of the globe; and in the manner one might hear on the urban street corner, in a brothel, or on a cable TV talk show.

Kyle Goldman and Kathleen McHatton play the twins, Apollo and Artemis – he looking like The Flintstones Bam-Bam grown up into golden-locks, muscled (but not too bright) majesty, she like a pensive but quickly irritable version of a feminine Robin Hood.  This Apollo is definitely a cartoon-version of the famed god, popping into spotlight to flex his ripped torso but always with a half-goofy, little-boy look and attitude that runs counter to his size.  Artemis is quick to find ways to get under the skin of her brother’s immaturity and is fierce enough with her bow that he seems to know just how far he can push her, and not any further.  The two actors are clearly having a ball in their roles and with each other as they pop in and out of the loose plot to update us on their relationship’s progression.

The other six members of the cast each play a triplet of godly roles.  The major downside of the production is that it is often not at all clear who is which god/goddess and their relationships to the twins.  Names, mostly unfamiliar to us as a modern audience, may or may not be clearly revealed; and there is unfortunately no dramaturgy offered in the program to prepare us for who such names as Rhea, Asclepsius, or Coronis is or any one’s relevance/significance in the grand, heavenly scheme.

That said, the individual and group appearances of the other eighteen deities are more often than not quite funny, even if not always totally understandable of connections and rationale for inclusion.  The two whom we do quickly understand their roles is the business-dressed in blazer and tie Zeus (Rob Talbot) and his absolutely hysterical queen, Hera (Tonya Narvaez).  While the former is straight off of Wall Street in his business-like efficiency and manner, Hera is Valley-Girl talking, potty-mouthed, and full of every put-down and insult she can muster – especially as she ridicules “Blondie” (aka Apollo).  Ms. Narvaez is also a hoot as Hera’s chief rival for Zeus’s bedroom attention, a Cockney-accented Leto, whom we first meet as she is about to pop the six-foot-tall Apollo from her very pregnant body.  And she has a stint as yet another mother, this time Niobe, who lost her twelve children in a Leto-induced rampage by the twins. (Or was it fourteen?  Or did one survive, and it was thirteen?  The debate continues.)

Niobe’s tale about her slain kids is just one of many such stories we hear shared by the now-residents of the underworld.  There is Actaeon (Kyle McReddle) who was turned into a stag by a wrathful Artemis, Coronis (Laura Domingo) who was set aflame while pregnant by the jealous father Apollo, and Asclepsius (Rob Talbot, also Zeus) who was killed by his grandfather Zeus because the medical powers his father Apollo had given him meant too many mortals were staying alive.  Most of these oft-horrible outpourings are almost told ho-hum, just friends sharing with friends.  If some god does all of a sudden explode enraged, the others usually look a bit embarrassed for him/her and clearly want just to get back to every-day chatter about their own tales of woe and/or of their fame among the mortals as poets, musicians, and healers.

Among other roles, Andrew Chung is particularly delightful as the goat-horned Pan (son of Zeus and a wood nymph ... These gods do get around) who is a stand-out as he tells in southern hillbilly dialect his own tale with jocular, over-done motions. 

Laura Domingo swoops in as a rainbow-draped, screechy-voiced Iris to monitor as Zeus’s spy the twins, insuring the virgin Artemis does not get too lovey-dovey with her hot sibling (or even hug him).  (Ms. Domingo is also memorable as the bitter Cassandra, who is pissed no one will believe her predictions any more since Apollo cursed and reversed the very power he gave her as a means of trying to woo her to his bed.)

Another standout is Kyle McReddle as Eros, god of love (and sex), dressed as a winged auto-mechanic, who admits his clear attraction for the hunky Apollo and who tells us in his matter-of-fact manner that he is “just doing my job, not thinking about the future ... Love does not think about the future.”   

Rounding out the cast is Kim Saunders, who gives a sobering soliloquy from her position as the goddess of the moon about all the children she has seen sent to pits, fires, rivers, and other means of needless destruction – by both the gods and certainly by humans, right up to examples hitting too close to home for comfort.

Stuart Bousel directs his own creation with attention to a steady, non-interrupted flow of the godly segments and to many doses of wink-wink humor, even as the tales are packed with blood and deplorable acts.  Lindsay Eifert has decked the heavenly hosts in costumes both modern and classic, both Macy’s catalogue and children’s storybook.  Lighting by William Campbell flashes bright upon the hero-like appearances of the Golden Boy and provides the shadows needed to remind us we are in a local bar of Hades. 

If one is willing to come home and do a few Google, Wikipedia searches, what we laugh at in watching Twins begins to have more meaning and interlocked connections. The multiple roles taken by single individuals also often become part of the irony and joke, once the background stories are clearer than sometimes comes out in the script.  But there is no doubt in leaving, even before any further research, that PianoFight has taken a worthwhile plunge into the ancient world, bringing those myths into the modern setting where they often sound too comfortably current.

Rating: 3.5 E

Twins continues through June 10, 1017 at PianoFight’s Second Stage, 144 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.pianofight.com.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

"SMUT: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson)


SMUT: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson)
Alan Bennett


Phil Wong, Søren Oliver, Andre Amarotico, Rosie Hallet, Robert Parsons & Nancy Selby (on floor)
Mrs. Donaldson, a recent widow left alone in her senior years, clearly is not stricken as much in grief as she is a bit worried about the financial situation that her deceased husband left her.  (After all, her long years of marriage were actually “happy to begin with, then satisfactory, finally dull.”)  How the prim and proper English lady decides to supplement her income leads her at one point to wonder about herself, “What kind of person was she? She was not no longer sure.”

Her choices for increased finances become fodder for Z Space Word for Word’s rendition of Alan Bennett’s SMUT: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson – a production that is absolutely delightful, altogether funny, and totally charming with some risqué mixed in for good measure.  Told with all the original wording of Mr. Bennett’s novella-size story, characters speak their parts in the third person to describe what they (and others) are saying, thinking, and doing.  SMUT: An Unseemly Story is Word for Word at the company’s finest – especially when directed with the astute, clever, heart-warming touches orchestrated by Amy Kossow.

Much to her buttoned-up, tightly scarfed daughter’s horror, Mrs. Donaldson has decided to perform as a patient for a local medical school’s doctors-in-training, taking on with increasing boldness, vigor, and sassy drama such roles as duodenal ulcer, Crohn’s disease, and the sudden faints.  The often bumbling and nervous students are under the watchful, often critical eye of Dr. Ballantyne, as is Mrs. Donaldson; but there is no criticism coming from the widower professor toward her – only a growing infatuation. 

Rosie Hallett, Nancy Selby & Andre Amarotico
Two of the students become boarders in Mrs. Donaldson’s house; but the rent soon becomes a big issue, for them and for her.  Laura and Andy come to Mrs. Donaldson with flowers, a cup of tea, and a proposal for how to pay her back – “a demonstration in lieu,” such demonstration involving what any two, hot-bloodied, lovers might do when their mostly naked bodies come together in bed.  Mrs. Donaldson’s decision leaves her in “a refuge a haven utterly set apart, a place all her own,” and it leaves us in stitches and in wonder of what is going to happen next for this endearing woman who is fast capturing her audience’s hearts.

With high, bubbled cheeks that accentuate a smile that rarely leaves her a-lit face, Nancy Shelby is nothing short of fabulous in the role of Mrs. Jane Donaldson.  The epitome of dignity, graciousness, and English charm in her no-wrinkles-allowed dress and simple shawl, her Mrs. Donaldson has also another side of her that surprises even herself.  It is almost as if she and we get to watch her emerge from years of married hibernation as she takes on new roles – both at work and at home – that awaken parts of her long forgotten.  As she notes, there emanates within her “a slow, deep pumping of the heart she had not heard since she was a girl.”  It would be tough to imagine how anyone could better embody this liberalizing evolution better than does Ms. Shelby.

All around her is a wonderfully talented cast of quirky souls, some of who play more than one part and all of who bring particular peculiarities well-honed and guaranteed to elicit laughter.  Opposite in almost every regard to her mother is Mrs. Donaldson’s judgmental, uptight daughter, Gwen, played deliciously by Delia MacDougall with an obnoxiously grating voice of low-English dialect as she continually notes, “I don’t know that Daddy would think.”  Even funnier is Ms. MacDougall becoming Mrs. Donaldson’s bosom friend and fellow medical-school performer, Delia.  Together they put on an act of two sisters with a brain-dead mother that flusters the hell out of the students and tickles to no end the audience.  (Delia is the sister who is clearly from ‘southern’ England, complete with drawl and a name of Jackie, with a sustained, high-pitched emphasis on the ‘kie’.)

The student who constantly also produces many giggles is Phil Wong as Roswell, a bug-eyed, in big glasses, wanna-be physician who blubbers and bumbles in his attempts to deal with the characters Mrs. Donaldson creates with aplomb.  Highly emotional, awkward, and insecure, Roswell eventually wins her, ours, and even Dr. Ballantyne’s admiration in a performance certainly worthy of “Best Featured Actor” consideration for Mr. Wong.

Søren Oliver
But wait, vying for that honor is certainly also Søren Oliver as Dr. Ballantyne himself.  Trying his best to appear strict and straight-and-narrow to his students in his portly body’s smart-looking suit and tie, Dr. Ballantyne lets us see his other self as he opens his heart and his hidden desires behind the closed doors of his office to a sympathetic skeleton.  Gawky like a teenager struggling with his first love but with the sophisticated language of a highly educated adult, Mr. Oliver’s doctor/professor is a great mixture of boy/man as the older’s heart and libido is re-ignited by his new flame, Mrs. Donaldson.






Robert Parson (in drag) with Phil Wong & Cast
Not to be over-shadowed amongst this strong cast, Patricia Silver is hilarious playing the eldest among the medical school’s performing lot, Mrs. Beckinsale, who boasts of her repertoire of brain-related, trauma and disease roles.  Robert Parsons is clearly having a great time running around --sometimes almost disrobed, sometimes in full drag -- as medical role-player Terry Porter.  Mr. Parsons also (much to Mrs. Donaldson’s annoyance) occasionally pops up as her dead husband, Cyril, with his disapproving frowns, only out-matched by his overly daddy-adoring and equally prudish daughter (the aforementioned Gwen).


Andre Amarotico, Rosie Hallet & Nancy Selby
Rounding out the ensemble, Rosie Hallett and Andre Amarotico are Laura and Andy respectively, Mrs. Donaldson’s student housemates, whose stop-action love-making – complete with their and Mrs. Donaldson’s ongoing commentary in Word for Word style – is a show-stopping combination of sexy and silly.  Ms. Hallett is particularly fun in the ways she exaggerates her movements of mouth, eyes as well as hands/fingers as she plays the intense Laura.

Andre Amarotico & Rosie Hallett
A great, tongue-in-cheek touch by both playwright Alan Bennett and director Any Kossow is the periodic insertion of a karaoke number by each of the characters (except the title lady herself), songs sung with flair and flimsy to accentuate some emotion or event at that point in the play.  The numbers often give the other actors a chance to ham up their roles even more as they watch and listen (like Roswell’s silently but completely losing it to Laura’s and Andy’s overly dramatic version of Elton John’s “Your Song”).

Jeff Rowlings has created a set (along with accompanying lighting) with tiered, arena seating like one might find in a medical classroom, complete with a drawer that opens out of the stairs to become a bedroom.  Fronting on two corners are simple but effective scenes of Mrs. Donaldson’s home and Dr. Ballantyne’s office.  Costumes by Callie Floor produce their own laughs as well as perfect the individual characterizations created by each actor.  Drew Yerys’ sound design lets us hear Mrs. Donaldson’s heart while also rocking in fun to the echo-chamber sounds of a karaoke bar.

One strange, somewhat distracting choice in the production is to have, at least the night I attended, one, lone audience member sit in the tiered seats of the medical classroom.  She seemed out of place both by her solitary presence and sometimes pulled my attention away from the play in order to watch her craning body as she attempted to see what was happening below her.  Maybe if there had been several such audience members, the device might have worked; but I cannot see what would have been added to the already tight, fast-moving ninety minutes where the small stage is full enough with the cast of eight.

So much of the overall fun of SMUT: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson) comes from the way it is told in the Word for Word fashion that I cannot imagine the story being staged any other way.  When this superb cast – especially as splendidly headlined by Nancy Selby as the title character – and the fine touches of its director are added, Word for Word’s SMUT: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson) is a gem not to be missed at Z Below.

Rating: 5 E

SMUT: An Unseemly Story (The Greening of Mrs. Donaldson) continues through June 11, 2017 at Z Below, 470 Florida Street San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at www.zspace.org.

Photo Credits: Mel Solomon

Monday, May 15, 2017

"The Charitable Sisterhood of the Second Trinity Victory Church"


The Charitable Sisterhood of the Second Trinity Victory Church
Bo Wilson
Dragon Productions Theatre

Ambera De Lash, Caley Suliak, Jennifer Tipton, Stephanie Crowley & Lisa Burton
“We serve those in need, in time of need, what they need ... Bless their hearts.”

Dragon Productions Theatre presents Bo Wilson’s The Charitable Sisterhood of the Second Trinity Victory Church, a distant cousin of the stalwart classic for hilarious gossip and heartrending stories among southern sisterhood, Steel Magnolias.  Rather than gathering at a local hair salon, the women of this congregation are braving a Noah-size flooding to come to the church’s multipurpose room to sort through a Sinai-size pile of odds-and-ends donations.

For my complete review, please follow the link to Talkin' Broadway: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj86.html.


Rating:  3- E

The Charitable Sisterhood of the Second Trinity Victory Church continues through June 4, 2017 at Dragon Productions Theatre Company, 2120 Broadway Street, Redwood City, CA.  Tickets are available online at dragonproductions.net or by calling 650-493-2006.

Photo Credit: Dragon Theatre Productions Company
 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

"Pear Slices 2017"


Pear Slices 2017
Various Playwrights

Briana Mitchell, Ariel Aronica, and Bryan Moriarty
From its writers’ forum often come full-length plays that premiere on the intimate Pear Theatre stage, and also emerging is an annual offering not unlike this year’s version of Pear Slices 2017: Eight fifteen-minute plays performed in repertory by seven talented actors.   What becomes evident shortly within the first act of the two-hour, fifteen-minute evening is that a lot can be accomplished on stage in only a quarter hour.  Stories are told; characters are developed; surprises happen while mysteries are solved; laughter ensues and tears suddenly well.

For a full review of this year's eight playlets, please click to my Talkin' Broadway review:  http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj85.html

Rating: 4 E

Pear Slices 2017 continues through May 28, 2017 at at Pear Theatre, 1110 LaAvenida, Mountain View.  Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.

Photo by Ray Renati

 

Friday, May 12, 2017

"The Events"


The Events
David Greig


Julia McNeal & Caleb Cabrera
“Everything I thought was solid is un-solid.
What’s the root of this unraveling?
Events, dear Boy, events.”

In small clumps of chatting friends, they gather around the coffee and tea station (complete with its Costco-size Coffee-mate), music in hand and with of course women far outnumbering men, as is usually the case for most community choirs.  After a few minutes, they stand in front of the piano and begin to lift their dozen voices in gorgeous, a cappella waves of light, happy harmonies that twist and turn in the air all around us.  And unlike the choir on that night when The Boy arrived unannounced but still welcomed by its director, Claire, these members of the Gallimaufry Chamber Chorus will all go home tonight; for they are on the Shotgun Players stage as a witnessing chorus of The Events that playwright David Greig and director Susannah Martin have planned for them and us.

While inspired by the horrific massacre at Norway’s Workers Youth League summer camp on July 22, 2011, The Events by David Greig cannot help but remind an American audience of the hate crime and mass shooting on the evening of July 17, 2015 at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church when a 21-year-old white supremacist killed nine.  We meet one survivor of a similar but fictional attack on a choir of mostly immigrants – of people who look different from the boy who will gun them down.  As the director of that ill-fated choir, she is now on a mission not to understand what happened to her (“I know what happened to me”), but to “understand what happened to him.”  And as she tries to piece together a puzzle that does not seem it wants to be or even can be solved, she once again shows up each week to direct a new set of aspiring singers from the community, as she is doing tonight in front of us.

Julia McNeal
As Claire, Julia McNeal exudes palpable, bottled-up intensity and feeling even in her many quiet moments where she is clearly just trying to think through the mystery she hopes to solve.  Her face is a map of strain from those events we will not witness; but, through her, we so come to understand and to some extent, experience – events like when the perpetrator found her and one older choir member huddled in a small room and demanded to know who should get his one, final bullet.  But we see also hints of the joy Claire once felt in the occasional smiles that brighten Ms. McNeil’s entire being, and we know that here is a woman who has a light inside her she is just looking to reignite by knowing why ... Why did this boy do that awful act?

Julia McNeal and a Community Chorus
“Is he nuts, or is he evil?”  That is the question Claire keeps asking everyone who might have a clue to the answer.  “Is it possible he’s insane ... If he’s insane, then it’s not his fault.”  Her frustration is reflected in the choir as she directs them in nonsensical syllables that become a sung mantra of “I am out of control, there’s no where to go now.”  And yet her determination to plunge ahead in her probing is also reflected in an emotional, beautiful rendition of “How Can I Keep from Singing” that she leads, leaving her and many of us in the audience with tears welling. 

But her almost manic insistence of “If I can find the cause, I can lay it to rest” leads her exasperated life partner, Katrina, to ask, “What if shit just fucking happens?” and her choir that has been asked to stomp and chant in a circle with a local shaman (from Fairfield, no less) to walk out suggesting in their own exhaustion, “Maybe forgetting is best.”

Julia McNeal & Caleb Cabrera
Through it all, Julia McNeal is masterful as she leads her Claire through a maze of interviews, self-explorations, and moments of total, emotional breakdown.  Equally stunning in his performance is The Boy who plays everyone from Katrina to Claire’s psychologist, a right-wing politician, The Boy’s father, and his supposed best friend.  And among many other roles, Caleb Cabrera of course also embodies the young shooter and murderer himself.  Often in a matter of seconds, he switches persona; but in voice and overall looks, he is always The Boy. 

Director Susannah Martin never lets us forget that the assailant is just a rather handsome, solemn-faced guy who wears an everyday hoodie and has such sad, deep eyes that it is obvious there is a traumatic story there we have yet to hear.  As The Boy, Caleb Cabrera is eerily steady, peering, and present – even when off to the side or in some temporary role that calls him to say lines of others who are interacting with Claire as she tries to figure out who He is, that Boy behind the face of the other role Mr. Cabrera is now portraying.

Caleb Cabrera
The Greek-like Chorus rises to interact and respond to The Boy, too, in a manner to raise one’s neck hairs in a shuddering moment of chill.  Standing on top of the piano, The Boy – now without shirt in an aboriginal form of himself – leads them in singing, “If I am going to make my mark on this world, I have to do it now.”  And we as audience members are sitting there, we begin to wander through our own growing list of questions about what does motivate young, beautiful boys like this one to walk into a church, a gay nightclub, a Parisian arena, a Turkish plaza, or one of dozens of other to-that-moment peaceful places and suddenly mow down innocent victims?

Beyond the script, the two actors, the director, and the choir (with music coordinated by Lisa Quoresimo), the power of The Events is further enhanced by extraordinary sound design by Jake Rodriguez.  Much of the urgency and tension that rarely dissipates during the ninety-minute production is due to the background, subtle-but-felt music beats, echoing clock ticks, or unsettling heartbeats that we are often vaguely aware of as they gently throb even inside us.  The lighting of Wolfgang Lancelot Wachalovsky also adds its own moments of drama, especially in the final seconds when light makes a lasting statement.  Angrette McCloskey’s set is effectively any and every community center or church multi-purpose room where community members might gather on a weeknight to sing.

The genius of David Greig particularly shines through in his instruction to a company like Shotgun Players to use a different community choir each night of the play’s performance.  For Shotgun, that means lining up almost 25 choirs and a total of 350 singers.  For the Shotgun audience, it means we get to understand the power of music to tell a story and to heal wounds as well the power of watching others – not unlike ourselves -- react and comment through their music and in real time to The Events unfolding in front of us all. 

The sum total is an evening none of us – choir members or theatre’s patrons – is like soon to forget, especially when the next, sadly inevitable headline screams of another boy, another atrocity. 

Rating: 5 E

The Events continues through June 4, 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 Jessica Palopoli

"The Mushroom Cure"


The Mushroom Cure
Adam Strauss
The Marsh


Adam Strauss
There is no way anyone can walk out of The Mushroom Cure without a greater understanding of OCD and an never-to-be-forgotten empathy for its sufferers.  But everyone is also ensured to leave feeling uplifted by the true story of how this man, this comedian, and now even this new friend of ours has found in the end maybe not the cure, but certainly a way to manage, to survive, and yes, to thrive.  With Adam Strauss and The Mushroom Cure, the Marsh has once again produced a miracle of a show and one that is a must-see.

 For my full review, please click on to Talkin' Broadway: http://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanfran/s1755.html

Rating: 5 E

The Mushroom Cure continues through June 3, 2017, Wednesdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m. at The Marsh, San Francisco, 1062 Valencia Street.  Tickets are available online at https://themarsh.org/.

Photo Credit: Dixie Sheridan