Monday, November 6, 2017

"Le Switch"


Le Switch
Philip Dawkins

Ryan Vásquez & Steve Rhyne
“Welcome to Library School.  When you leave this program you will be able to classify everything.”

And with that, David in his trademark cardigan of questionable colors and accompanying bowtie begins his first lecture of the new term.  When he goes on to tell the librarian novitiates, “We are the keepers of classification,” David is actually talking about his own life.  He has 1-2-3’ed his entire life and beliefs.  Those beliefs include that no matter that it is 2011 and New York has just legalized same-sex marriage, he has no intent – ever, never – of recreating the mess his parents had and get married himself.  After all, what was his coming out all about at eighteen if not to divorce himself from “traditional” relationships?

That mantra holds firm for David in Philip Dawkins’ Le Switch, now in a well-acted, beautifully set, regional premiere at New Conservatory Theatre Center.  That is until David lays eyes on a certain, to-die-for-cute Québécois, there are no doubts of his confirmed bachelorhood.  But even as he is tongue-tied and blushing upon meeting Benoit, David’s classification system immediately sets in, telling him no matter how adorable, sweet, and loving Benoit is (and he is all that and much more as played by Ryan Vásquez), he will not be part of the gay horde of lemmings jumping over the cliff into dreaded matrimony.

David has also classified himself with lots of other categories that set him apart and make him different in his own mind from most everyone else in the world.  After all, he collects rare books that dominate his NYC apartment and makes a point never to open any of them, only imagining what stories might lie within.  He loves calling himself “queer” in every sense of the word, even though as played so well by Steve Rhyne, he is about as straight-laced looking and acting as ... well, as the librarian that he is.  His twin sister, Sarah, does try to point out to him that he is not all that out of the norm; after all he buys his socks at the drug store, loves playing Monopoly, and uses “3-in-1 Prell.”  But David stubbornly hangs onto his self-defined classifications and rejects anything being “normal” about himself – including any intention of accepting Benoit’s eventual, bended-knee proposal.

In his Le Switch Philip Dawkins establishes the framework for a funny, heart-warming, if not also quite predictable and formulaic romantic comedy.  As directed by Tom Bruett, the NCTC production moves along at a brisk pace with each member of the cast establishing qualities quirky, endearing, and likeable.  (Well, there is actually nothing “quirky” about Ryan Vásquez’s mid-twenties Benoit; he is just over-the-top “endearing” and “likeable.”  And did I mention dimple-cheeked cute?)

The sparks between David and Benoit are visceral, and the electricity shooting back and forth between them is almost visible.  Through his direction of the two, Mr. Bruett ensures that each side or extended gaze, each slight or purposeful touch, and each brushed or intense kiss only makes the eventual outcome more inevitable – even with David’s classification system creating roadblocks through his stubborn demeanor all along the way.

Brian J. Patterson & Steve Rhyne
Much of the play’s humor and also commentary on what committed, love relationships really can look like come from others who make up David’s inner circle of life.  Brian J. Patterson is David’s lifelong best buddy, Zachary, who has asked the confirmed bachelor-for-life to be his best man in a wedding whose colors are “pumpkin and aubergine” (that is, very orange and eggplant purple).  As straight-laced as David is, Mr. Patterson’s Zachary is flashy, over-dramatic, and let’s just say, a bit on the swishy side.  As he admits, “I majored in causing a scene and minored in ‘What are you looking at?’”  Zachary is also totally in love and so very excited finally to be able to marry.

Steve Rhyne & Nancy French
David’s twin, Sarah, has been in a ten-year marriage-of-convenience to David’s non-resident friend, Jamal, in order to help him to be a legal U.S. resident.  Imagine David’s dumbfounded reaction (and more than slight annoyance) when his partner in confirmed ‘never-to-marry’ announces that she and Jamal are now in fact married in more than just the legal document that for so long meant nothing?  Nancy French is a sister any “brudder” would die to have – loving, snarky, fun, and funny.  If she only were not also so prone to call his bluff and start some truth-telling that begins dissembling his tightly defined categories about himself.

Ryan Vásquez & Donald Currie
Rounding out this talented cast is Donald Currie as Frank, another of David’s long-term friends -- in this case an older man who (along with his deceased husband) helped shepherd David through some former, rough spots in his life.  Frank, also a librarian, is a life-long protester for multiple causes and thus oft-inhabitant of a jail cell (although he admits after his latest bail-out by David, “I’m getting too old for this; jail is not what it used to be.”)  Mr. Currie displays a wide range of emotional acumen in his portrayal of Frank, from quirky old man to a partner still very much in love with and grieving for his deceased.  As too a confirmed ‘don’t-need-to-marry-to-love’ gay man, Frank’s example and advice to David becomes a major turning point for the currently conflicted-in-love guy who is much like a son of the elder friend.

Steve Rhyne & Ryan Vásquez
As wonderful as the cast is, the real star of this production is the set and accompanying projections created by Sarah Phykitt.  Sliding floor-to-ceiling panels with various sized panes that move easily in three different depths on stage provide the possibility for many settings and entrances/exits.  They also become the canvases for an ongoing array of beautiful, scene/mood-setting projections, all enhanced by a fabulously stunning lighting design by Sophia Craven.  Much of the evening’s success in conveying this romantic comedy comes from the production’s creative team (including Wes Crain’s character-defining costumes, Sara Witsch’s background sounds, and Chris Daroca’s detailed and fun props).

Philip Dawkins’ Le Switch does not plow any new theatrical ground nor tell a story that has unseen twists and turns for a surprise ending.  This is a play that is just a plain, ol’ good time to watch -- one guaranteed to produce lots of laughs and a few, heartfelt sighs.  New Conservatory Theatre Center has pulled out all the necessary stops to guarantee an enjoyable, smile-producing evening.

Rating: 4 E

Le Switch continues through December 3, 2017 at

on the Walker Theatre 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.

Photo by Lois Tema

Sunday, November 5, 2017

"Singing in the Rain"


Singin’ in the Rain
Betty Comden & Adolph Green (Book); Arthur Freed (Lyrics);
Nacio Herb Brown (Music)

The Cast of Singin' in the Rain
As the orchestra ticks through well-known number after number during the “Overture,” the music swells until the one everyone knows is coming begins its familiar float of notes.  And at that moment, a man in hat and with umbrella appears for less than a minute, hanging onto the lone light pole and then swinging around with one arm extended while grinning exuberantly.  It is at that moment that everyone in the Broadway by the Bay audience knows that we are in fact about to see a stage version of the 1952 film almost any movie fan on earth loves to love and has probably seen multiple times, Singin’ in the Rain.  

For my full review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj102.html.


Rating: 3.5

Singin’ in the Rain continues through November 19, 2017 at at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City.  Tickets are available at https://broadwaybythebay.org .

Photo credit: Mark Kitaoka and Tracy Martin

Friday, November 3, 2017

"Aladdin"


Aladdin
Alan Menkin (Music);
Howard Ashman, Tim Rice & Chad Beguelin (Lyrics);
Chad Beguelin (Book)

The Cast of Aladdin
With exotic, kaleidoscopic colors of every hue imaginable, Disney’s Aladdin bursts onto the SHN Orpheum stage in a touring version that has more elaborate scene changes, more dazzling costumes, and more jumping tumbling, and even flying cast members than any traveling show in recent memory.  As the bustling market place of the Middle Eastern city of Agrabah comes to life in the opening “Arabian Nights,” sword swallowers, belly dancers, and acrobatic passers-by fill the stage amidst swirling robes and scarves, fast-moving merchandise carts laden with fruits, and little buildings that have their own way of dancing together – all awash with colors gone iridescently wild.  And the bigger-than-life Genie wearing seemingly dozens of yards of dazzling blue tucks and folds proclaims that in Agrabar, “Even the poor people are fabulous.”

The Cast of Aladdin
If the packed audience (even the sourest and most cynical among them now already smiling ear-to-ear) thinks that things will slow down to a normal pace from here, they have sold way too short the fast-paced, eye-popping direction and choreography of Casey Nicholaw; the immense, sparkling sets of Bob Crowley that come and go in a blink of the eye; and the hundreds (let’s say 337) of costumes designed by Gregg Barnes – some with as many as 8,644 Swarovski rhinestones embedded (so says the program).  And try to figure out how the members of the huge ensemble are able to change those outfits of 2,019 different fabrics and trims often in less than thirty seconds.  Even if the music of Alan Menkin and the lyrics of Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and Chad Beguelin were not potential earworms that will haunt audience dreams for days (which they are), this is a musical that is unabashedly and unapologetically full of wonder, magic, and sheer fun for kids 3 to 99.  Warning: Do not come looking for life-changing messages of any serious nature.

Anthony Murphy
As is now often the case for Disney, Aladdin started as a big-screen animation hit in 2011 before transforming into its Broadway version in 2014.  At least two aspects of that NYC production seemed to be on everyone’s lips who saw the show:  The magic carpet (“How does it fly like that?”) and the Genie as played by Tony-winner James Monroe Iglehart (“How does that big man move that fast and in so many cool ways as he dances, slides, and tumbles all over the stage?”).  In this touring version, the carpet is still a character with its own personality that leaves jaws open and heads scratching as it swoops, dives, and flies with no noticeable devices or enablers – all the while Aladdin and Princess Jasmine are on board.  And the current Genie in this roadshow – Anthony Murphy – more than fills Mr. Iglehart’s up-turned slippers as he takes on a Cab Calloway persona in his moves, voice, and charisma.  Together, they are worth the price of the ticket, even forgetting all the other razzle and dazzle surrounding them.

Mr. Murphy’s Genie bubbles over with an alluring personality that fills the vast stage.  His humor is aided greatly by Chad Beguelin’s pun- and one-liner-packed book, but he often appears to be spontaneously generating his lines just for tonight’s audience.  He sings robustly with a hint of gleeful mischief in his wide eyes and uses every ounce of his large body to move in ways beguiling. 

Anthony Murphy, Adam Jacobs & Cast of Aladdin
After the Genie introduces the first scene, he disappears until Aladdin finally rubs his lantern, bringing the “riff-raff” boy of the streets the famed three wishes.  That Aladdin finds the lantern while entrapped in a mammoth cave of gold and jewels is due to the show’s villain (always a must for a Disney story), the Sultan’s Grand Vizier, Jafar.  Played with just enough evil to be a tad scary but also with a cartoonish air to be funny, Jonathan Weir is the diabolical Jafar who convinces innocent-enough Aladdin to go into the “Cave of Wonders” to get that lantern so that Jafar can make himself ruler and can marry the beautiful Sultan’s daughter, Jasmine.  (Jafar has been told by a magic spirit that Aladdin is a “diamond in the rough” and the only one who can enter the cave safely.)  His diminutively sized sidekick, Iago, (a delightful Reggie De Leon) is a bad guy who quickly becomes a crowd favorite with his constant flow of silly jokes and with his ability to roll around the stage with short legs moving a hundred miles an hour to keep up with the much taller Jafar.

Adam Jacobs
Adam Jacobs, a local boy from Half Moon Bay, originated the role of Aladdin on Broadway and continues this role in the national tour with the same youthful exuberance, playful nature, and romantic looks and outlooks that served him well on the Great White Way.  When he literally bumps into the Princess Jasmine in the city’s bustling marketplace, the Romeo-Juliet moment is full of sparks flying between them, setting up a storyline headed to that Disney-ending wedding everyone knows is coming.   

Isabelle McCalla & Adam Jacobs
Isabelle McCalla does not disappoint in any aspect (vocals, gumption, or looks) the formula we all now expect of a Disney princess.  When she and Aladdin sing together in two of the musical’s best-known numbers (“A Million Miles Away” and “A Whole New World”), their blended abilities have that Disney perfection that cannot help but wow and please, even if there is nothing much different in either’s sound than is heard from almost any, modern Disney show’s hero and heroine.

And that goes for the rest of this superbly talented and highly diverse cast.  Besides a the large ensemble that both sings and dances with total aplomb, three chums of Aladdin particularly stand out for their zany, reckless, and hilarious ways of cavorting around the streets, alleys, and roofs of Agrabar.  Zach Bencal, Philipe Arroyo, and Mike Longo play Babkak, Omar, and Kassim respectively and prove their mettle time and again when joining Aladdin, the Genie, and/or the entire ensemble in rousing, stage-filling numbers.  Both acts are book-ended with crowded stages of variously clothed (or not) bodies doing everything from tap dances to kick lines to body gyrations of every aerobic description. 

And with those numbers, as has been noted, come Mr. Barnes’ constantly changing costumes that glitter with all the over-done but thoroughly enjoyable flairs we often associate with a Las Vegas extravaganza.  The fantastically striking lighting design of Natasha Katz puts every costume and scene change into a storybook land of wonderfully reflected color.  The brassy, sassy sounds of the large orchestra conducted by Brent-Alan Huffman awaken all the aural senses to match the visual over-abundance of the stage show.

End-to-end, Aladdin is just plain fun.  Everything is over-done, and we do not care.  The talented cast backed by a book full of laughs and songs that are hummable appear to be having the times of their lives throughout.  That energy is contagious, spreading throughout the large Orpheum Theatre and leaving the entire audience with big satisfied smiles as they exit.

Rating: 5 E

Aladdin continues through January 7, 2018 at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.

Photo Credits:  Deen van Meer

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

"The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler"

The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler
Jeff Whitty

Caitlin Papp & Juanita Harris
In a wonderfully directed and acted production at Dragon Productions Theatre, The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler is a hilarious, Vaudevillian-like glimpse of the afterlife of fictional characters.  This is a first-class, must-see outing that will delight every lover of stage and film as the fictional stars of today and yesteryear parade before us in a wild, wiley, and sometimes totally whacky Hedda like none before her.

For my full review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway:  https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj101.html.

Rating: 5 E


The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler continues through November 19, 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, October 29, 2017

"The Eva Trilogy"


The Eva Trilogy
Barbara Hammond


Julia McNeal
With ocean waves crashing somewhere in an unseen nearby and invisible sea gulls noisily swooping overhead, she sits on the stage’s lone brick doorstep. Forehead furrowed deep for someone only in midlife, cheeks alternating between long and pooched but always with cheerful dimples, and red hair giving away her Irish heritage almost as quickly as her delightful but understandable brogue, she talks to no one in particular but maybe to us.  Words tumble out continuously like a dripping faucet that cannot be turned off, and her eyes glisten with excited almost frenetic energy as she lectures to the gulls on subjects from Jesus’s thirst for water while on the cross to the original woman with her own name and “the business with the snake the and apple.” She also moves about her life from her childhood to her first love-making with a kid named Jimmy.  But throughout, the common thread of her rambling is her returning to a long-ago memory or a moment’s ago experience with her Mam, who lies inside dying of Parkinson’s.

Julia McNeal
For nearly an hour, Julia McNeal holds the audience in rapt, almost breathless attention as she in nonstop monologue is Eva Malloy, a daughter who escaped Ireland and family to live for years with little abandon in Paris but who has returned to her home in Ireland to help care for Eileen, her suffering mother.  Eden is the first of three one-act plays in Barbara Hammond’s The Eva Trilogy, now receiving its world premiere at Magic Theatre.  The tour de force performance by Ms. McNeal in this one-woman first act is just a taste of a fascinating three hours that are at times hypnotic, at times startling, and at other times funny, touching, fanciful, and yes, confusing.  Each act can well stand alone as its own story and play; but together the package is wondrous in its exploration of the ravages and effects of personal loss and how to come to peace with that loss.

Lisa Anne Porter & Rod Gnapp
While Eden takes place at the very end of Eileen’s long journey toward death as narrated by her daughter Eva, Enter the Road occurs some time in the ensuing weeks or months as those close to Eileen share their reflections and biases concerning enduring one’s own or another’s sustained illness.  More specifically, Eva’s sister Teresa (Lisa Anne Porter), her husband Eamon (Rod Gnapp), Eileen’s hospice caregiver Roisin (Amy Nowak), and the local parish priest Father O’Leary (Justin Gillman) confront their own and each other’s views concerning the role Eva had in relieving her mother’s suffering, in “helping her cross over.”  Set in what is probably a courtroom during the sentencing stage but with aspects of talk-show television studio, the four approach stand-up mikes in somewhat random, non-associated manners – at times appearing to be aware and to hear each other and at other times, seemingly reflecting/debating in solitude.  Time and place also jumps around as each person speaks of what it was like to be day-in and day-out with the sick and dying Eileen.  All also give very pointed and/or poignant views of Eva’s appearance from Paris to care for her mother while Teresa and Eamon went away on a much-needed break. Their own conflicting views and the differences among them are accentuated by the powerfully timed movements orchestrated by Director Loretta Greco where their bodies pass and almost collide and yet with each person appearing as if pacing on a stage alone in thought and individual struggle of conscience. 

Rod Gnapp & Justin Gillman
Each of the four leaves a memorable impression of the local, small-town persona portrayed.  There’s the rather self-righteous, young priest who does not show much budge from strict scripture interpretation whose judging, uptight, and fastidious manners that Mr. Gillman provides him are seen in how he dresses without a wrinkle, looks with disdain on opinions different from his, or holds himself erect as an arrow.  Rod Gnapp’s Eamon is a gosh-darn nice guy who clearly loved and enjoyed his mother-in-law, suffered with her suffering, and totally believes his sister-in-law knew how best to help her Mam in her dying moments.  His wife Teresa teeters back-and-forth on how much sympathy she has or does not have for her sister and how much agreement or antipathy she has for the accusing priest, with Ms. Porter showing the exasperation of a woman who has lost one loved one and is not sure whether she can bear to lose a second or not.  Finally, as hospice nurse Rosin, Amy Novak powerfully provides in words and pained but understanding expressions what it is like to be with someone as death approaches and what a person like Eileen often is dying (literally) to have happen as the end approaches.  Together, the ensemble of four delivers a captivating, thought-provoking The Roar.

Caleb Cabrera & Julia McNeal
Just as Shakespeare often does, playwright Barbara Hammond takes Eva and a young, lost hiker named Tom in No Coast Road into the magical woods to find healing, resolution, and peace-of-soul from losses both have experienced.  Hana S. Kim provides both a set and projection design that establishes a remote wilderness clearing amidst trees and dancing nymphs (the latter whimsically portrayed in video by Megan Trout).  Combined with beautifully scripted lighting effects of Stephen Strawbridge and subtle sound effects and a low-humming musical composition both by David Van Tieghem, the third act is as much dream as outdoor reality.  Ms. Greco directs the two-to-three-dozen, short scenes that remind one of a night’s repose where dreams come and go as the body tosses and turns, finally falling into the deep, desired sleep as the night’s sequence reaches a much-sought resolution.

Julia McNeal & Caleb Cabrera
Eva returns in this third hour, now a much older woman -- a forested hermit with wildly flying hair of white and various raggedy garments covering her slumping, limping body (one now minus a leg).  A beautiful specimen of a young man collapses at her open-air homestead, lost on a hike that has a mission to become clear as their special relationship develops.  Along with another stellar performance by Ms. McNeal as an Eva who is still prone to spill forth non-stop her stories and observations, Caleb Cabrera is outstanding as he slowly unlocks who Tom really is and what his mission in this hike is.  Together, they find in the magic of this surreal setting answers and solace as well as rest of heart and soul.

Not every minute of the three hours of Ms. Hammond’s The Eva Trilogy is always understandable as to what is exactly happening and why, but never is there a minute that is not intriguing.  In the end, answers to lingering questions are not always answered for us, but there is a sighing sense of resolution that enduring a terrible loss (whether a loved one, one’s freedom, or something as fundamental as one’s own leg) is possible given time, help of a fellow human being, and maybe just a little magic.

Rating: 4 E

The Eva Trilogy continues through November 12, 2017 at The Magic Theatre at Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Blvd., Building D, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at 415-441-8822 or online at www.magictheatre.org

Photos by Jennifer Reilly

Friday, October 27, 2017

"Small Mouth Sounds"


Small Mouth Sounds
Bess Wohl


The Cast of Small Mouth Sounds
What happens if we allow silence to dominate our world – at least the silence of our own voices?  What might we hear if words no longer clutter our day-to-day lives?  In Bess Wohl’s 2016 Off-Broadway hit, Small Mouth Sounds, six seekers of needed solace arrive for a week of forested retreat, reflection, and possible resurrection from various personal traumas and tragedies – a week where they are to refrain from any talking except when directed by their Teacher. 

With talk being mostly absent during the one hour, forty-minute production now arriving on tour at American Conservatory Theatre’s Strand stage, what emerges is a brilliantly conceived, inventively directed, and superbly acted collage of silent interactions that are hilarious, touching, titillating, heartwarming, and often, tearfully sad.  The result is a one-act play that seems to fly by in no time, that takes the audience on a roller coaster ride of emotions, and that entertains to the max during every passing minute – all accomplished by stripping away the words and leaving us with subtle (and not so subtle) gestures, grimaces, and Small Mouth Sounds.

The Cast of Small Mouth Sounds
One by one, six retreaters arrive to find six folding chairs lined in a row such that they do not look at each other but look at us and at a Teacher that we never see but only hear.  Jan (Connor Barrett) is a tall, middle-aged man who appears to be a combination of nervous, scared, and yet eager.  Rodney (Edward Chin-Lyn) immediately rolls up his tight jean grinning and assumes various yoga positions in his bare feet while “ohm-ing.”  With a tight-knit cap on his head, Ned (Ben Beckley) comes in quietly and non-assumedly whereas twenty-something Alicia (Brenna Palughi) arrives late and loud, bundled in enough coats for Alaska and with a bag full of what appears is likely contraband (no food, drinks, or cell phones allowed).  In between those latter two, Judy (Cherie Snow) and Joan (Socorro Santiago) enter clearly as a couple of at least friends if not more, with Joan’s face full of wondrous anticipation and Judy’s full of mixed horror and disbelief that she is actually there.  And from somewhere in front of them and behind us, a voice dripping in guru wisdom begins the week with “There was once a little green frog.”

Orville Mendoza is the supposedly well-known and celebrated Teacher whose voice is the predominant one heard during the entire play.  He gently spills forth in sing-song fashion platitudes and phrases right out of many a self-help book.  He also openly shares his own personal dreams of the previous night and current woes that have nothing to do with anything.  To a mixture of confused and amused faces, he recounts, “Last night I dreamed a lawn mower was mowing a lawn” while another time he is almost giddy about little blue pills he is taking for his cold.  And yet we and the six-in-silence soon begin to realize that any learning and insight gained from this week is not likely not to come from the Teacher’s lectures but from what they discover through relationships that begin to develop, build, and even blossom (or wilt away) with no words attached.

Each of the six in retreat has a number of moments of acting brilliance.  Some occur as they head to their humble nightly place of rest -- a bare, wooden floor that appears as Scenic Designer Laura Jellinek’s raised and boxed-in meeting room recedes silently into the background.  Finding their ways among invisible doors and walls, the six unroll their bamboo mats onto the floor in pairs of two roommates.  We soon get to watch through Rachel Chavkin’s deliciously delightful direction three sets of roommates settling in (or not) to their first night together.  Much fun ensues for us as an audience, if not always for the paired roomies. 

Roaming somewhere outside are the neighborhood’s bears, a threat that will eventually lead to the evening’s biggest round of guffaws from the audience.  And the moon in the wilderness sky is not the only moon these meditators (or we) are going to see shining as clear as daylight in the dark of night.

But for all the laughs we get to have at this group’s expense, there are increasingly almost as many stunning and serious moments where we and they learn why each has come to this retreat.  Past pain still very much present is common among the six for a variety of personal reasons – from lost loved ones to life-threatening illness to a series of personal tragedies that even a National Enquirer reporter would find hard to believe.  Confronting their own and each other’s pains and finding ways often tender and always unspoken to comfort are some of the most memorable moments of the evening for us as audience.

Cherene Snow
To a person, each actor is uniquely wonderful in the role cast.  Facial expressions speak volumes like Ms. Snow’s ways of turning Judy’s crunched up frown into a sudden smile that lights up her whole being.  Equally proficient at broadcasting many emotions with never a word spoken is Ms. Santiago’s Joan, who almost bursts at times with glee from a sudden ‘ah-ha’ and at other times, lays bare raw feelings kept deep inside.

Ben Beckley & Edward Chin-Lyn
The wild spin and whirl of all four, lanky limbs becomes tornadic as Connor Barrett’s Jan is constantly attacked by unseen mosquitoes (while no one else seems to be bothered) while the pantomimes used by Mr. Beckley as his Ned tries to negotiate personal space with his roomie Rodney are fabulously fun to watch.  Rodney himself, as portrayed by Mr. Chin-Lyn, is without an ounce of fat or a slither of modesty as he proudly pumps his muscles, stretches his every tendon, and prances around in yoga-like calm (while making sure everyone else is watching). 

Brenna Palughi
But among this cast of stars, Brenna Palughi particularly stands out in her portrayal of the oft-discombobulated, awkwardly out-of-place, and yet thoroughly intriguing Alicia.  Alicia is actually the only attendee whose intention for being there is never discovered by her cohorts or by us, but those swollen eyes that are nearly always on the verge of tears speak volumes for what must be going on deep inside.  The person who most defies all the rules (cell phone on under her blanket at night, bags of chips and Gold Fish snuck into the cabin, gum smacking during the group sessions – for just a few examples) is also the one who diligently writes down every word the Teacher says and who keeps looking with sad but hopeful gazes at the carefully folded piece of paper where she has written her goal for being on this retreat.  Ms. Palughi may be the one person we learn the least in “facts” but the one that definitely leaves a lasting impression of what it means to face one’s demons with gumption and courage.

Ms. Jellinek’s stark but beautiful set is put into forested context by three back panels of projections designed by Andrew Schneider that bring the beauty of the wilderness into our awareness.  In a play without words, other sounds play a big role, and Stowe Nelson’s sound design allows the even smallest of sounds to take their place on the stage and in the story.  Mike Inwood’s lighting compliments the overall staging while Tilly Grimes costumes provide character descriptions that we miss from no verbal introductions of each person.

So much occurs with so little said in this wonderfully fascinating production of Small Mouth Sounds.  This is a play I could easily see a second or third time because there are so many cues simultaneously coming from this superbly directed cast as they each discover in themselves and in each other what the Teacher describes as “your brilliance, your juiciness, your specialness ... your enlightenment.”  They and we learn, “All you have to do is listen.”

Rating: 5 E

Small Mouth Sounds continues through December 10, 2017 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street.  Tickets are available in person at the Geary Theatre Box Office, 405 Geary Street Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday or at the Strand Box Office Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. (or curtain).  Tickets are also available at 415-749-2228 and online at www.act-sf.org.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson

Sunday, October 22, 2017

"An Enemy of the People"


An Enemy of the People
Henrik Ibsen, Adapted by Rebecca Lenkiewicz

The Cast of An Enemy of the People
Rebecca Lenkiewicz has stripped Ibsen’s original play of some of its extraneous moralizing and sidetracks for a slimmer version of An Enemy of the People that brings the nineteenth century story right into 2017 relevance.  Pear Theatre is now staging this 2008 adaptation where costumes denote a yesteryear long past but where language, circumstances, reactions, and accusations/counter-accusations smack of today.

For my entire review, please click to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj100.html


Rating: 3.5 E

An Enemy of the People continues through November 12, 2017 at Pear Theatre at Pear Theatre, 1110 LaAvenida, Mountain View.  Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.

Photo by Betsy Kruse Craig
 

Friday, October 20, 2017

"La Muerte Baila"


La Muerte Baila
Rebecca Martinez
Teatro Visíon


There is palpable excitement stirring as the curtain rises on a darkened underworld as all skeletal souls wait to hear the bells on earth begin to chime to announce el día de los muertos (the Day of the Dead).  Those bells are their invitation to cross over for one day and re-enact a favorite memory, to visit a missed loved one, or just to relish the heat of the sun on their bony faces. 

Rebecca Martinez (with help from the Milagro Ensemble) creates this scenario as the opening of her 2015 play, La Muerta Baila (The Death Dance), now in a rousing, high-energy production by Teatro Visíon of San Jose.  Staged in Spanish, supertitles are available for those in need of English translation. 

My full review can be read on Talkin' Broadway, San Jose/Silicon Valley region: 

 https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj99.html.


Rating: 3 E

La Muerte Baila continues through October 22, 2017 by Teatro Visíon at the School of Arts and Culture at Mexican Heritage Plaza, 1700 Alum Rock Avenue, San Jose.  Tickets are available at http://www.teatrovision.org.
 

Thursday, October 19, 2017

"Barbecue"


Barbecue
Robert O’Hara


Teri Whipple, Clive Worsley, Anne Darragh & Jennie Brick
We are here “to encircle with truth and love today in the open air ... Today, we step in.”  So says a sister to three of her adult siblings gathered together in a city park setting where the main features are a chain-link fence, a picnic table next to the public bathrooms, and a rusty grill ready for a barbecue.  The “step in” she is proposing is “an intervention” with a fifth member of their brother/sister group on this, her birthday -- a sister they all call “Zippety-Boom” whose crack and alcohol habits have landed her too often on some street curb ranting at passers-by.  That the other siblings have their own excessive habits of popping pain pills like jelly beans, downing Jack Daniels like it was soda pop, or going through cans of beer like there is no tomorrow somehow fails to register with them as anything but normal.  And while the one sister named Lillie Anne is zealous to save poor Zippety-Boom, the other three seem more in line to agree with James T’s conclusion of “Why on God’s green earth do we still give a damn?” 

And so opens Barbecue, Robert O’Hara’s bitingly hilarious, incisively irreverent, and deliciously raunchy look at one family, its convoluted relationships, and the individual and collective excesses, prejudices, and self-destructive behaviors of its members.  San Francisco Playhouse opens the company’s fifteenth season with a production guaranteed to send waves of laughter, shock, and surprise while at the same time challenging its audiences’ assumptions concerning race, poverty, and the core family in today’s America. 

Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, Adrian Roberts, Kehinde Koyejo & Halili Knox
Two Midwestern families – one white and one African-American – alternate scenes populated with bags of chips, drugs, and booze, each family dealing with the same issue of a how to convince a sister to enter a rehabilitation center (one that happens to be faraway in Alaska). That each member of the two families also shares the same name and biases of a likened member of the other family as well as mirrors the person’s quirky behaviors, overuse of foul language, and a tendency to talk only in shouts and screams is just the first twist and turn of many to come in this brilliantly written, superbly directed production.  Every time it seems that we as audience finally figure out what is actually going on, another birthday balloon pops; and the story takes a 180-degree turn in a hilarious direction totally unforeseen.  This is a play where as audience we need seat belts to ensure we do not fall out of our seats; for the ninety-minute ride is full of swerves, bumps, and sudden stops and starts.  All we can do is hold on and laugh with eyes ever opening wider in disbelief of the newest revelation.

Margo Hall not only directs this fast-paced, two-act play with incredible ingenuity and insight (and a flamboyant penchant for the brazen and the bizarre), she also stars as one of the two Zippety-Booms (Z-B’s given name at birth being Barbara).  She and Susi Damilano are both exceptional in their parallel roles as the fallen sister who has such unpredictable tendencies for wild, explosive reactions that brother James T -- or should I say, both brothers James T – has brought along a Taser gun just for insurance.  For all the surprise their siblings are looking to spring on each of the two drug-addicted Barbaras (equine therapy, yoga, and a ropes course in Alaska, for example), both Barbaras have some shocks of their own that will leave family members and audience members equally reeling in stunned astonishment.

Clive Worsley and Adrian Roberts play the lighter and darker skinned versions of James T, and each comes hilariously close to embodying one of Lillie Anne’s descriptions of James T: “You are in your trailer-park, ass-hole time of life.”  Give each a beer (or two or six), and even the whiter will probably agree with the blacker’s response to a sister’s plea to help her corral Barbara onto an Alaskan-bound plane: “I ain’t gotta do nothing but be black and die.” 

Pills spill out of their hiding spot in her cleavage while ash falls from an ever-present cigarette.  That is true for each of the two Adeline’s (Jennie Brick and Edris Cooper-Aniforwoshe), and both have verbal venom ready to spill faster than vodka does from her glass whenever aroused by any of the other siblings, especially James T.  “I’ll beat you ‘til I see white meat” is just one of many threats that come from both of their foul-language-filled mouths.  Both actresses are a hoot as they sit on their folding chair thrones huffing and puffing their cynic-filled sentiments.

Terri Whipple, Clive Worsley & Jennie Brick
In fringed cut-offs barely covering what is supposed to be covered, each Marie (Teri Whipple and Kehinde Koyejo) is so tightly wound that the spring is just about to pop as they both bounce all around the park setting, chugging Jack Daniels and clutching a purse whose contents surely include powdered substances no police officer should see.  The f-word falls freely from their lips at a volume anyone within blocks must surely hear, and each actor draws constant audience heehaws for her crazy, twisted antics.

As do-gooder Lillie Anne, Anne Darragh and Halili Knox each has the near-impossible job of convincing her boozy, druggy, leave-me-alone siblings to help in saving Barbara.  But each has a few tricks up her sleeve and some convincing reasons for their cooperation – just more of the ongoing, unexpected revelations that keep this production sizzling and popping like a string of firecrackers.

Bill English has once again designed a superbly perfect set – this one so realistic that we can almost smell the foul scents coming from the park’s bathrooms that border much too closely to the snack-laden picnic table.  Brooke Jenning’s costumes are right off the shelves of some discount store in a strip mall and provide their own laughs even without any scripted lines.  Cliff Caruthers and Wen-Ling Llao’s designed sound and light respectively leave no doubt that we are somewhere deep in America’s southern middle where the sun shines hot, bright, and sticky and where the music is always loud and blaring.

For all that this review has said thus far, the details are only the tip of the iceberg for what really happens in the bulk of the play.  Using what is now an outdated Disney term, this is an “E-ride” that is not to be missed since it cannot be described without experiencing.  San Francisco Playhouse has a winner that sets the bar high for this fifteenth season, and my guess is that any one who sees Barbecue may still be laughing and shaking a disbelieving head all the way until the end of the six-play season.

Rating: 5 E

Barbecue continues through November 11, 2017 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street.  Tickets are available at http://sfplayhouse.org/ or by calling the box office at 415-677-9596.

Photos by Jessica Palopoli