Sunday, February 26, 2017

"Love Sick"


Love Sick
Ofra Daniel (Adaptation & Lyrics); Ofra Daniels & Lior Ben-Hur (Music)


Ofra Daniel and Cast of "Love Sick"
The eighty, non-stop minutes of Love Sick pass all too quickly as Jewish Circle Theatre presents this world premiere by Ofra Daniel.  The tale intrigues throughout and in the end, surprises.  The music mesmerizes and brings both ancient and modern times into a blended concert that engulfs the audience.  The words of Song of Songs are like nothing non-readers of the Bible would ever expect to hear.  The story they imply is one that audience will long remember.

Please follow this link to my full review on Talkin' Broadwayhttp://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj73.html.

Rating: 4 E

Love Sick continues its world premiere through March 19, 2017 on the Second Stage at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.  Tickets are available online at https://tickets.mvcpa.com/eventperformances.asp?evt=113
or by calling 650-903-6000 Monday-Friday, 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Saturday-Sunday, noon-6 p.m.

Photo Credit: Cheshiredave Creative

Friday, February 24, 2017

"Daughter of a Garbage Man"


Daughter of a Garbage Man
Maureen Langan

Maureen Langan
Maureen Langan -- accomplished stand-up comedian, journalist, and talk show host – has a fixation on the Kardashians.  She can hardly stop talking about Kim, especially when comparing their two lives and the unfair difference between their fame and fortune.  One of the two followed the advice of her Bronx-born, blue-collar dad and her Irish-immigrant mother and worked hard, went to college, and learned as an English major the ins and outs of using semicolons and dashes.  The other made a sex tape with her boy friend, starred in a reality TV series, made movies, and toured the world to promote her book.  To Maureen Langan, she somehow got the wrong end of the deal and the wrong advice early on how to be successful in life.  She is now looking whom to blame: her father, her mother, America (which “values hot and young over substance”), or all three.

In The Marsh’s Daughter of a Garbage Man, Maureen Langan grabs the audience in the palm of her hand and will not let go of them for seventy-five minutes.  As her captivated clan in the intimate setting of The Marsh, we ring forth constantly in unabashed laughter at her stories of growing up and the imitations of her parents.  Audience members eagerly note total agreement through lots of energetic nodding (and applause) with her observations about parents and American culture.  Seemingly to a person, we even a shed a couple of tears here and there as her stories remind us of our own stories.

In her one-woman tour-de-force, Maureen Langan explores in some sincerity but mostly with full tongue-in-cheek why America seems currently to be rewarding reality show stars and not her (or you or me).  She looks at her upbringing to find out why did she grow up not realizing that “all you have to be in life is young, hot, and famous” to be successful.

She begins with her dad, Huey Langan (named, she claims, for the patron saint of “fools, idiots, and shoemakers”), a garbage man in New Jersey with a huge heart and big laugh – except when he was drinking, which was all too often.  Turning with her left shoulder to the audience and her extended left arm motioning every phrase, Ms. Langan sounds off in the heavy Bronx street talk of her dad and describes him as “a giant toddler ... a lot of fun ... but you never know when he’s going to have a breakdown.”  This combination of “Archie Bunker, Fred Sanford, and Marlin Brando” could sometimes be the violent drunk who turned over the family’s Christmas tree or punched holes in the wall (which were then covered with Maureen’s third-grade art), but he could also be the good guy who sat with her on the couch reveling in guffaws and providing hilarious commentary while father-daughter watched “The Ed Sullivan Show.”  Listening to her tell these stories from both her and his perspective, we see and hear the love and the pain wrapped up in that relationship.

Turning to the other side so that her left shoulder now points to audience and her right hand lies flat on her upper chest, Ms. Langdon dons a rich Irish brogue and a shaky head to become her mother.  Of her mom, she recalls, “When you’re mother has an Irish accent, she can say the most hurtful things and it sounds like a Celtic poet.”  Given all the strictness (and prejudices) her Catholic mother used in monitoring what young Maureen wore and whom she befriended, the adult Maureen tries to convince us that maybe her mother, Ann (also known as Annie, Nancy, and Dolly), is the one to blame for her not now being as famed and rich as Kim Kardashian.  But like with her dad, her stories increasingly become ones of the older Maureen discovering that there is much more beneath the hard surface that she did not understand or know as a young girl – heartaches and sacrifices (and surprises) that once known, help the adult Maureen to look to further sources for the core blame of her current dilemma of not enough fame and fortune.

Maureen Langan
So, to America the always-pacing/moving Maureen turns her attention.  (With her red hair, high heels, and short stature, think of Bette Midler to get an idea of her built-in energy.)  And once the focus is America, the blame eventually begins to fall on all our amused but guilty shoulders.  Who else has created the Kardashians or elected the star of “The Apprentice” as president?  Her message begins to hit home pretty loud and clear, and the show turns into a bit of a rally to action to change the road we are currently on where pop and political stars are becoming too synonymous.

But what makes Ms. Langan’s stories particularly touching and meaningful is when she reveals layer after layer of her own fears and faults.  There is “a lump in my throat throbbing,” we are told – a lump filled with a young girl’s, a teen’s, and maybe still a grown woman’s own sense of mortality and looming, dire possibilities.  (What must it be like going through most of a growing up worrying swallowing one’s tongue or being fearful of choking to death on the dark dots of vanilla bean ice cream?)  It is through this thread permeating throughout her stories that we learn so much about our storyteller and through which she helps us remember some of our own insecurities that appear in the middle of the night or that have haunted us since childhood.  Our hearts go out to her, even as we are cackling at the next recalled antidote, spontaneous-sounding side remark, or emulated voice from her past.

As he does with many of the Marsh shows, David Ford has helped Ms. Langan in the development of her script and show as well as ably directed it.  The result is a show that looks often as if we are tonight hearing the first telling as ideas and stories seem to pop spontaneously into the teller’s conscience.  Alexa Amira contributes excellent lighting and help with occasional projections that add further context and humor to the narratives.  The result of their support and Maureen Langan’s writing and performance is an evening that passes much too quickly, jam-packed with moments to be relished and remembered.

Rating: 5 E

Daughter of a Garbage Man continues through March 25, Thursdays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 5 p.m. at The Marsh, San Francisco, main stage, 1062 Valencia Street.  Tickets are available at http://themarsh.org or by calling 415-282-3055 Monday – Friday, 1 – 4 p.m.

Photo Credit: Bitten by AZebra Media




Monday, February 20, 2017

"Bootycandy"


Bootycandy
Robert O’Hara

“You have to pull yourself back and wash so you can keep your bootcandy clean.”  So says little Sutter’s snappy mother who has quite explicit ideas what her pre-pubescent son needs to do when bathing each day (now and forever), opening him up to ask questions like, “Mama, what is a blow job?”  (Her answer, if it is not in the dictionary, it is not a word, period.)

And thus opens Bootycandy, Robert O’Hara’s usually hilarious, often poignant, and sometimes tragic exploration of the attitudes and stereotypes (outlandish to poisonous) he sees within the African American community towards homosexuality.  With a fine and accomplished cast, Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Experience presents Bootycandy in a production honest in its approach, raw in its language and depiction, and daring in its willingness to lay situations right on the table that may be uncomfortable to witness.  At the same time, Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe’s choices in bringing Mr. O’Hara’s script to full life lead constantly to laugh-out-loud moments galore, sometimes bringing tears of hilarity followed quickly by tears of the pathos behind the humor.

Bootycandy is structured as a series of varying length comedy sketches, any one of which could actually stand alone as a short segment on an SNL-type show.  At first, it appears they are unrelated except for a running theme of dealing with sexual attitudes within the black community of America, mostly in relation to gay men.  But the further the evening progresses (and especially once into the second act), it becomes clear that many of the segments (but not all) explore the sexual identity journey of Sutter, the little boy – played by the grown Sutter – of the first scene.  We see Sutter as a kid, a teen, and a grown man; and we view him in conversations, confrontations, and consultations with close relatives, best buds, and possible pick-ups at home, in bars, in a seedy motel room, and in a old-folks home.

AeJay Mitchell spans well all the age and maturity requirements as he portrays time-specific glimpses into Sutter’s life.  He is a persistently curious and cute kid, nagging his reluctant mom about birds-and-bees inquiries that hint greatly at his interest in his so-called “bootycandy” and other boys.  As a teen, he glides about and talks in a soft but precise style and manner that speaks to his interest in theatre, Whitney Houston, and Jackie Collins’ books.  As a young adult, he is explicit about his sexual desires of a possible partner but also cautious and wary due to an experience at a younger age with an older white man – a connection that continues to haunt him in memory and in the man’s association with someone he later meets.  Throughout, Mr. Mitchell shows an acute ability to convince us of the complexities Sutter has to face and power through as an African-American, gay man -- both within his own family and within the black minority and white majority worlds around him.

Surrounding Sutter in these sketches are a variety of people who sometimes link as the same person from one skit to the next but who more often play a variety of unconnected roles and are often in scenes that are not about his life at all.  Chief among the four cast members for his ability to be outrageously, over-the-top funny is Rotimi Agababiaka.  As Reverend Benson, he begins a Sunday sermon about the “I Heard Folks” in his congregation – those people “who love to come around whispering” about some of the choir boys who they say are “a little freaky’ and “a little twisted” because they “smile at one another” and “have a look see at one another.”  With ever-increasing volumes of a voice that distinctly in preacher rhythms underlines words for emphasis and exaggerates consonants like spitting bullets, the Reverend attacks his congregants’ underlying prejudices against gays without ever using the word.  As his long fingers point, his arms flail, and his whole body jerks, jumps, and eventually jives, this preacher has a few surprises of his own under his holy robes.

Mr. Agababiaka returns in several more sketches in roles such as the sullen, mostly silent, but always sneering step-father of the teenage Sutter who thinks the boy needs sports in his life to overcome his tendencies toward glamour and books.  He also appears in curlers and robed nightgown as the aged, nursing-home-bound grandmother of Sutter in a scene full of sentimental nostalgia as Sutter orders her favorite-but-now-forbidden baby back ribs on his cell phone.  At the same time, he plays snippets of past conversations to trigger stories and memories the two share (and act out to both sweet and hilarious effects).  In each and all of his roles, this is the actor worth the price of the ticket to see.

But holding their own is the rest of this excellent ensemble, too.  Kehinde Koyejo and Indiia Wilmott appear as chatting friends on the phone (as well as each of their call-interrupting sisters) who cannot stop gossiping, cackling, and rolling their eyes about one of their daughters who is about to name her baby daughter “Genitalia.”  Much later, the two actors appear with the Reverend Benson and a hippy-looking white guy (Aaron Wilton) as a lesbian couple (the grown Genitalia with her wife, Intifada) all dressed in white for a full ceremony that is step-by-outrageous-step the polar opposite of a marriage ceremony.  Together with competitive antics of screams, accusations, and sneaky tricks, they pledge their non-commitment -- promising eternal “faith, hope, and hatred.”  (While both of these sketches are hilarious, their connection to the whole overall jigsaw puzzle being constructed throughout the evening is as strange, outlier pieces.)

Aaron Wilton, as the lone Caucasian in the cast, also has the opportunity to play a wide range of personalities.  He is la-la goofy as a bare-chested, beaded, new-age leader of the aforementioned ceremony of dissolution.  He is clearly out-to-lunch but with no visible clue of being so as a white moderator of a panel of four black playwrights – the supposed writers of four earlier scenes we have just seen in earlier sketches.  But it is when he plays two different scenes as a straight man desiring sex with Sutter at two points in Sutter’s life that Mr. Wilton shows his true moxie as an actor, with each scene evoking the pain, inner shame, and total frustration of such situations (and each scene further allowing Mr. Mitchell to show his acting prowess as he further examines the sexual-identity journey of Sutter). 

Sean Riley has made good use of the staging possibilities of the large Brava Theatre stage, including its backdrop curtains, in designing simple sets that flow in and out with relative ease for the evening’s many short scenes.  His vision is greatly enhanced by the lighting design of Jenny B (Shady Lady Lighting) that uses a mixture of colors, spots, and full-stage lighting to establish beautifully the needed moods and foci.  Much of the night’s humor emits not just from the script, direction, and acting but also from the many changes of costumes Andre Harrington has been called upon to create – from “non-wedding” attire to fabulous, teenage gay boy to uptight parents and gossiping church ladies.

Robert O’Hara does not shy from alerting the sometimes-reluctant African American community that there are gays lurking among them and that their lives and loves count as important even as the culture makes it difficult for them to see themselves as normal and loving.  But his message of course applies to every sub-culture within America and to a society as a whole where entire swaths of U.S. geography are still packed full of people with all the prejudices of the “I Heard Folks.”  Kudos goes to the Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Experience for staging this regional premiere and doing so in such a compellingly funny and though-provoking manner.

Rating: 4 E

Bootycandy continues through March 5, 2017 in production by the Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Experience at the Brava Theatre, 2781 24th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at https://www.brava.org/all-events/2017/2/15/bootycandy.



Sunday, February 19, 2017

"Assassins"


Assassins
Stephen Sondheim (Music & Lyrics); John Weidman (Book)

With a white-painted face and its black-encircled eyes and lips blood-red, a big-smiling clown -- more demon than not -- steps forward, luring in one-by-one a bizarre collection of passers-by to his side.  In an upbeat, tempting voice, this Proprietor cajoles, “Hey pal, I mean you ... You wanna shoot a president?  C’mon and shoot a president,” while selling each some sort of vintage gun.  He then joins the group of eight in a rousing, feel-good number, “Everybody’s Got the Right” (“to be different, even though at times they go to extremes ... to their dreams”). 

Thus opens Assassins, one of the more controversial musicals ever to be staged and one that even companies prolific in producing Stephen Sondheim works often avoid producing.  With music and lyrics by the musical genius Sondheim and book by John Weidman, Assassins first opened off-Broadway in 1990 and then took a full fourteen years before finally making it to the Great White Way, pulling in five Tonys.  That most of its key principals are the men and women who attempted – and sometimes succeeded – in assassinating American presidents and that it is also jam-packed with plenty of guffaw-producing humor, clever parody, and sharply targeted sarcasm makes Assassins a somewhat bold choice for any theatre to stage.  But clearly the packed opening night crowd voted their hearty approval with their laughter and their frequent, sustained applause of Bay Area Musicals’ current choice to produce Assassins as they reveled in the stories unfolding before them of this elite group of America’s greatest non-heroes, of America’s most vile set of villains.

Assassins explores the motivations of these notorious people, at least half of whom most Americans would no longer recognize their names.  In the course of the time-tripping musical, the key characters interact with each other in a series of encounters that are of course impossible to have happened except in a script.  These gatherings are interspersed with reenactments of the moments before and after their attempted assassinations, including the final demise of several of the perpetrators.  And all is done with music that Sondheim has created to echo tunes and genres full of all-American styles of the times each assassin lived.  That there is a Yankee-Doodle, patriotic feel to many of the songs makes the musical and its content all the more unnerving and yet intriguing. 

Any Sondheim musical is challenging for most actors due to the word-packed lyrics that are often to be sung at a speed just short that of lightning, with vocal ranges required from deepest to highest notes.  The Bay Area Musicals (BAM) cast assembled by Director Daren A.C. Carollo to a person is more than able to excel in delivering every twist and turn of the tunes and lyrics that the composer lays before them.  Further, this cast excels in convincingly presenting through their acting abilities the strangeness, anger, loneliness, and often sheer insanity of this assembled group emerging from some of our national history’s darkest moments.  All display in note-worthy manner the accents, personal traits, and disturbing psychological issues of each would-be assassin.  Each also ably sells their spotlighted moments in ways for audience members not only to take note of the quirky, disturbing villains, but also the targeted presidents and the curious and/or stunned bystanders they often portray on the side.

In this production, the director has chosen to accentuate and even exaggerate the humor embedded in the script with exquisitely timed moments like that of President Ford’s characteristic tripping to the ground just before an assassin bungles her failed assassination attempt.  The omni-presence of the clown-faced Proprietor (Eric Neiman) watching from the side over assassinations with his ever-present painted smile is an eerie but inspired choice by Mr. Carollo that graphically draws our attention to the fine line Sondheim is drawing between the horror and the humor of these historically grievous and momentous events.  And just when we in the audience are caught up in a moment of laughter (all the time not sure we really should be laughing, given the subject matter), all of a sudden one or more guns point directly at us, often shutting us up completely.

With his acoustic guitar in hand, Sage Georgevitch-Castellanos is a young, clean-cut-looking narrator who guides us as Balladeer through the dark tales with All-American-sounding songs sung in a gosh-darn, upbeat manner.  His Yankee Doodle Boy approach -- complete with occasional whistling and a smile and personality that could sell the Brooklyn Bridge – is in stark contrast to the ballads he sings as he tells the backgrounds, attempts to make meaning, and even acts as provocateur of various assassins such as Lincoln’s Booth, McKinley’s Czolgosz, and Garfield’s Guiteau.

The Balladeer is often joined by the assassin he sings of.  He suggests to John Wilkes Booth that maybe “you’d merely had a slew of bad reviews” as a possible motive for the Lincoln assassination.  But reverberating in a deep voice echoing his inherent stage sophistication and Southern manners, Derrick Silva as Booth goes to great pains to explain, “They will understand it [i.e., his motive] later – the country was not what it was.”  With a quivering lip and eyes wild with conviction of his own self-truth, a dying Booth tells the Balladeer, “What I did, I did well, and I did it for my country.”

Other assassinators are no less apologetic as they interact with the balladeer.  DC Scarpelli as Leon Czolgosz is wild-eyed with anger and moves like a stalking predator as he moves up a line waiting to greet President McKinley at the 1901 Pan American Exposition.  Terrence McLaughlin also brings a rabid voice and a graphic countenance – dripping in anger and without regret -- as he sits waiting death in the electric chair for his attempt at bringing FDR down, arguing that he is an American in the New Deal world of Roosevelt who has nothing -- including “no care, no more.” 

Peter Budinger is the disillusioned, man-of-many-trades Charles Guiteau who is crazed in his determination to get Garfield to make him French ambassador.  Mr. Budinger is particularly startling and memorable as he sings “I Am Going to the Lordy” – a poem the killer actually vocalized before his hanging.  Alternating a slow, gospel dirge with a brisk beat full of optimism, his Guiteau looks to heaven with a shining face as he light-foot dances up the steps to the gallows.

Jessica Fisher and Kelli Schultz are often like characters out of a 1970s sitcom as they portray two would-be Gerald Ford assassins, Sara Jane Moore and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme respectively – both who fortunately totally bungled their attempts.  On a park bench scene where they practice in cackling laughter gun shots aimed a smiling Colonel Sanders on a chicken carton, the two share their crazed pasts and further howl in sounds straight from an insane asylum about their discovery of a shared association with Sharon Tate’s murderer, Charlie Manson. 

Other bizarre moments abound that cause both the hilarity and creepiness factors of this musical to go off the scale.   In barbershop quartet harmonies right out of a county fair scene, Assassins Czolgosz, Booth, Guiteau, and Moore sing in “The Gun Song,” “Your little finger can slow them down to a crawl, show them all, big and small, it took a little finger no time to change the world.”  Hunching over a guitar and singing through a nervously twitching mouth, John Hinkley (who injured President Reagan) is also joined by “Squeaky” in a duet where each sings, “I am nothing” (in “Unworthy of Your Love”) to their idols, Jodie Foster and Charles Manson. Soloing and then blending in tones creepily sweet and innocent, each ends with the haunting regret, “I am unworthy of your love ... darling.”

As the man everyone in the audience has waited most of the production to see, Lee Harvey Oswald finally appears, played in this production by the same actor who up to this point has represented the All-American Dream, the Balladeer (another directorial stroke of genius).  As Oswald, Sage Georgevitch-Castellanos is now small and thin in white t-shirt and jeans, looking more boy than man and like someone who would likely go unnoticed in a crowd (rather than about to become a notorious icon for the ages).  Sitting alone and depressed, he is visited first by a coaxing, smooth-talking Booth and then by the entire entourage of other, encouraging assassins – those before him and those to come after him (even some to be inspired by him).  His initial reluctance in this musical’s telling to pull the trigger on Kennedy versus on himself is spine-tingling. 

The post-shooting images on the projection screen of Jackie leaning over the President’s body while the onstage Oswald blankly watches in disbelief as his own shadow falls acorss the same screen is enough to send chills down the spine and tears to the eyes.  As the entire ensemble sings “Something Just Broke,” individuals of every societal sort remember where they were when they first heard of the assassination – something many in the audience surely are also doing.  The humor that up to now has snuck into almost every part of the musical is totally absent in a scene still raw for many watching some fifty-plus years from its actual occurrence.

Director Carollo has created a set design that smacks of a country fair’s sideshow as each historical villain has a framed doorway to enter surrounded by sparkling lights.  Ryan Weible’s lighting design accentuates this design, with special touches provided as each individual steps up to re-shape history.  The lighting also makes full use of shadows and harsh lights on faces to accentuate the monsters lurking among us. 

Julie Indelicato takes advantage of the Alcazar Theatre’s size and setting to create a sound design that ensures each of Sondheim’s many lyrical words and notes are clearly understood and that enables the realism of gun shots and other effects to be believed.  Brooke Jennings introduces us to several eras of time, personalities strange and dark, and persona historically well-known and unknown through an incredible array of costumes and wigs (all further complemented by the properties created by Devon LaBelle).  Finally, the choreography of Matthew McCoy that calls to mind everything from traveling Vaudeville to B’Way stage shows and the outstanding musical direction of Jon Gallo and his orchestra of eight round out this incredible creative team.

For any theatre, Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is a monumental undertaking just because of its subject matter, much less the normal challenges of a Sondheim score and set of lyrics.  In 2017 when our elected president repeatedly as a candidate encouraged his Second Amendment proponents to use their gun rights to voice their opinions, the subject matter of the musical is even more startling and unsettling.  Sondheim and Weidman leave us with the words of the Balladeer that we can only hope that those leading our country and those enthralled by those leaders will pay heed:  “Angry men don’t write the rules, and guns don’t right the wrongs.”

Rating: 5 E

Assassins continues as a Bay Area Musicals production through March 19 at the Alcazar Theatre at 650 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.bamsf.org/assassins/for performances Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. 


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

"A Thousand Splendid Suns"


A Thousand Splendid Suns
Adapted by Ursula Rani Sarma
Based on the Novel by Khaled Hosseini
David Coulter (Music)

David Coulter and Cast of "A Thousand Splendid Suns"
For many years -- actually several decades -- daily headlines have presented themselves about the ongoing wars, devastation, atrocities, and yes, human suffering of a faraway land most of us still have trouble mentally locating its exact boundaries and neighbors:  Afghanistan.  More specifically, we have all heard of a city called Kabul whose name is familiar but a city few of us can probably envision beyond dusty ruins and people running scared in the streets among bursting bombs and sniper bullets.  And as we become oblivious to the overload of bad news from this region, largely going unnoticed by the bulk of the world – including you and me --
are the people who go about their daily lives and chores, who love their kids just as we do ours, and who have dreams just like us to be happy (or in their case, “finally happy”).

Playwright Ursula Rani Sarma and Artistic Director Carey Perloff aim to ensure we pause long enough to see what is going on in the kitchens, bedrooms, and other inner sanctums behind all those bombed-out streets and buildings.  American Conservatory Theatre presents in opera-level proportions in world premiere an intimate look into the lives of three generations of women in modern Kabul in Ms. Sarna’s adaptation of Khaled Hosseini’s novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns.  With his original music reflecting the region and the emotional elements of the story (all played on instruments true to Afghani traditions), David Coulter provides an ongoing stream of haunting notes and melodies that accentuate the epic yet microscopic view the playwright and director lay out before us of daily life in war-torn Kabul.

Denmo Ibrhim, Barzin Akhavan & Nadine Malouf
Fifteen-year-old Laila is described by her mother as a “thinker, a dreamer,” something we quickly see as she dotes on her professor father and his love of books.  (“There’s always time for poetry,” he tells her.)  As the family packs hurriedly to leave Kabul as it is caught in the middle of the horrific civil war among the Mujahideen, her father (Barzin Akhavan) plays a game with her to help him pick five books to bring (“like the game when you’re going on a desert island”).  But the game and the dream ends quickly and decisively as a whistling missile finds its target of their neighborhood, leaving Laila wounded and an orphan – one of surely thousands such orphans through the decades in that hellacious, war-ravaged land.

Haysam Kadri, Kate Rigg & Nadine Malouf
Taken in by what seems at first a kind-hearted neighbor, middle-aged Rasheed, Laila is nursed slowly back to health under his watchful eye and the reluctant help of his sullen, suspecting wife, Mariam.  When further bad news arrives that Laila’s childhood friend (and secret love) Tariq has also perished in the bombs, she reluctantly accepts a proposal by an insistent Rasheed to become his second wife – something his older wife vehemently protests to no avail.  And why would Mariam not when Rasheed declares in front of her and his new, beautiful, teen bride, “She (Mariam) is not like us ... If she was a car, she could be a Volga ... You, you’d be a Benz ... a shiny Mercedes Benz.”

But when his bride produces a first-born, oft-crying girl baby, Aziza (rather than a more-desired son), Rasheed begins to turn more and more sour on his young bride and more violent toward his older bride.  Ultra-machismo attitudes are further reinforced and exaggerated by the ascendency of the women-hating Taliban as Afghanistan’s rulers.  His increasing restrictions, sourness, explosive ranting, and physical threats become the impetus for the two wives to forge a mother-daughter-like bond that becomes their primary means for mutual survival – and the survival of the daughter they jointly treasure above all else.  Even when a son does arrive, Rasheed’s treatment of the women in the household only worsens as he showers all his love, occasional gifts, and even decreasingly available food on his adored Zalmai.

Nadine Malouf & Kate Rigg
Nadine Malouf and Kate Rigg are almost-beyond-description perfect in their respective roles as Laila and Mariam.  Both transform before us in ways that ongoing war, societal prejudice, daily hunger, and spousal abuse have a way of marking wear and tear on their faces, their postures, and their very souls.  At the same time, each glows through their tears and scars in the familial love they increasingly feel for each other and in the love they share for the two children.  Their everyday lives determinedly persist in ways women have carried on for countless generations in hundreds of other wars generated and perpetuated by their men.  We see in each of them an Every Woman of war-torn nations while also experiencing two very particular, nuanced personalities that these two fine actresses so skillfully reveal to us.

Pomme Koch & Nadine Malouf
Part of what we learn from and about them comes through stories they share with each other of their pasts (stories we see re-enacted as they tell them) and through dreams -- sometimes nightmares -- that return time and again.  Pomme Koch is the lame lover, Tariq, who disappeared in a moment’s notice but who reappears in the mind’s eye of Nadine as a joking, teasing, loving boy who only has eyes (and stolen kisses) for her.  He is a dream that never leaves her and one she readily shares with her beloved Mariam (along with a secret that Rasheed has long suspected and gnaws at him with increasing and deadly rage).

Mariam shares a sad story of her own, one about a mother she calls Nana who once hung herself and who returns shuffling through Mariam’s mind, dragging a noose around her neck with her.  All the time she reminds Mariam that the Koran only has one charge for women like them:  “Endure.”  Denmo Ibrahim is the gravelly voiced, evil-eyed haunt that will not leave Mariam in peace.  (She also plays earlier Laila’s hovering, admonishing mother, Fariba.)

Haysam Kadri, Nadine Molouf & Kate Rigg
Haysam Kadri grabs hold of the role of Rasheed and literally leaves no stone unturned in his graphic, all-engrossing portrayal.  In the beginning, he presents a man that we can readily find some reasons to sympathize with him and his fate.  We even can sometimes come close to admiring his perseverance while at the same time more and more becoming uneasy over his obvious and troubling faults.  However, as he at first slowly and then later at alarming speed transforms this man into a monster, we see the faults mount and intensify, horribly reflecting the demonic, male-dominated society around him and turning Rasheed into a being almost no longer recognizable as human.

Nikita Tewani and Neel Noronha as the sister-brother pair Aziza and Zalmai continually remind us through their adept acting that behind the bombs and atrocities, children are still finding ways to play and to quarrel, to tease and to complain.  But in this case, they are also suffering the pains, tensions, and sins of their parents and the surrounding society as reflected in their own faces full of trepidation and fears of things they do not quite understand. 

Carey Perloff reminds us of the mammoth scope of the suffering and hardships of the Afghani people that goes much beyond this one household under examination.  Shrouded players dragging their households move across the stage as if in an historical, migratory trek toward hopeful survival against the continuous backdrop of a non-forgiving landscape, seemingly non-ending war, and a large sun that bears down with no obvious mercy.  Ken MacDonald’s scenic design combined with Robert Wierzel’s lighting genius paint a massively stark and yet beautiful, ageless landscape that surrounds this contemporary disaster created by men and nations.  The elements and shadows are enormous in scale.  The colors are ever-changing as the landscape sometimes splits apart and opens up to reveal a dream, an atrocity, a new reality.  Jake Rodriguez’s sound scape and Linda Cho’s ethnically and geographically defining costumes round out a creative team that is as much a part of this overall stunning, stirring story’s resulting power as are the writer and the cast.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is a story, a picture, and a memory we cannot ignore the next time we see a headline about some faraway, God-forsaken land and its ongoing wars and rivalries.  Carey Perloff and the American Conservatory Theatre have assured that when we read those too-familiar words, we will see the faces of the women and children huddled somewhere in the depths of the front-page pictures – women struggling to cook a meal and maybe share a cup of tea and children hoping to play a little soccer and maybe even go to school to learn.

Rating: 5 E

A Thousand Splendid Suns continues through February 26, 2017 on the Geary Stage of of American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.act-sf.org/ or by calling the box office 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Beane


"The Real Thing"


The Real Thing
Tom Stoppard


Liz Sklar, Carrie Paff, Seann Gallagher & Elijah Alexander
Boundaries between real life and life on the stage, between the written word and the spoken word, and between married couples who are also friends are just some of the borders constantly blurring and leading to surprises for the characters and the audience of Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing.  Are offered words of love ever actually genuinely given, or is the person just following an internal script of ‘here is what I am supposed to say at this point as if I really mean it’?  Is being a passionate lover the same as being in love, and can one really tell the difference?  What makes a writer’s words worthy versus worthless, and who gets to decide the true merit?  What makes a cause (or a person) truly merited enough to support, and how does one trust that the cause if not just someone’s ego trip? 

On and on the questions arise as Tom Stoppard challenges his characters, his audience, and probably himself to explore reality versus the appearance of reality.  Aurora Theatre presents his double-Tony-winning The Real Thing (1984 for Best Play and 2000 for Best Revival of a Play)  -- a play some may believe is too overloaded with the very words that the playwright calls “sacred” while others will relish the verbal, philosophical exposes and arguments its characters pour forth and the resulting questions that those words do not answer.

Seann Gallagher & Carrie Paff
In his silk, paisley PJs and a stylish blue-striped robe, handsome Max puts the final touches on a multi-layered pyramid of cards just as his wife Charlotte returns from a business trip, slamming the front door and bringing down his masterpiece.  His multiple inquiries about her trip to Switzerland that zing across the room like a barrage of arrows are met with her skilled avoidance and increasing annoyance.  Even an Alpine, souvenir snow globe is not going to help his obvious suspicion since we and she soon learn he has rummaged the bedroom to find her passport that never left the bedside drawer, leading him to accuse her of adultery.  Seann Gallagher and Carrie Paff offer electrically charged, compelling performances as Max and Charlotte, and only in the second scene do we realize that this very real situation is actually just a scene from a play in which the two actors (who are only friends, not spouses) are jointly starring. 

We will also soon see that life will imitate art in more ways than one, even in details like similar gifts brought home to convince spouses of trips not taken.  We will also learn that Charlotte and Max are much more interesting and dynamic on the stage than they are in life, each being a mixture of superficial and bland once off their stage and away from their scripts.  What they each have going for them is that their other half (a playwright named Henry as Charlotte’s husband and an actress named Annie as Max’s wife) is in fact very alive and attractive on many dimensions.  But it just so happens, we soon learn at a dinner party of the two couples, their spouses have a mutual attraction all their own that is about to come out into the explosive open.

The bulk of the play now centers on the now-married divorcees, Henry and Annie, and the aspects of their own relationship (and other extracurricular relationships) that seem constantly to fade in and out of reality, fantasy, and somewhere in between.  Liz Sklar drips with sincerity, caring, and concern as Annie; but how much is this just Annie’s actress self and how much is her real self soon is on the table for our and Henry’s analysis.  Annie is clearly directing her own life’s play much of the time and writing a script where she will be the last person standing and in control.  Often, her face and posture are in full disbelief if anyone suggests a reality different from the one she sees and wants as true.  She is championing an imprisoned soldier, Brodie, who was arrested in a protest for setting fire to a Tomb of an Unknown Soldier’s displayed wreath.  But when challenged by husband Henry that her hero may not be all that he appears, she refuses to budge in her opinion even when confronted with a terribly written play he has created about his own life. 
 
Liz Sklar & Elijah Alexander
Through Annie, Stoppard pushes Henry’s and our buttons about what boundaries in reality do and do not exist when it comes to marital love.  She tests Henry to see if he can sustain his love for her even when it does not match his idealistic definition.  “You have to find a place in yourself where I am not a part, or you won’t be worth loving,” she advises as Tom Stoppard himself seems to be giving himself some advice about disappointments he is having or has had in his so-called committed relationships.  And when Annie lays it bluntly all on the line to Henry that “I have to choose whom I hurt, and I choose you because I’m yours,” it becomes difficult for us not to believe that The Real Thing is actually about the real life experiences and lessons Stoppard is recalling and reflecting upon.

Henry often becomes the voice of Stoppard the writer.  Elijah Alexander is sometimes almost like a teenager in his ebullience about life as the playwright Henry.  As a playwright, he seems to be the one always to be on stage, seeking the spotlight with his over-dramatics.  He becomes so enthused at times that he literally bounces, jumps, plops, and crawls all about the stage before us – all the time demurring about music, words and writing, love, and other subjects that a playwright such as he or Stoppard could elaborate for seemingly ever and ever (which at times, Henry almost does). 

Liz Skaler & Elijah Alexander
It is to written words that Henry returns again and again to reflect:  “They deserve respect.  If you get the right ones in the right order, you might nudge the world a little or make a poem that children will speak for you when you are dead.”  That passion also leads Henry to be the loyal lover who hurts to the core when he realizes Annie may not define love and commitment that way he does.  Mr. Alexander gives time and again the performance of the night as his Henry struggles to make sense of the blurred boundaries Annie places on their marriage while also realizing he is forever trapped within them, a prisoner of his own love for her.

Tommy Gorrebeeck & Liz Sklar
Tommy Gorrebeeck plays Brodie, the imprisoned, supposed anarchist that Annie dotes on and also the antithesis of everything Henry (and probably Stoppard) believe in.  He also double as Billy, an actor working with Annie where a script’s eroticism jumps from the words on page into the bodies enacting them on the rehearsal stage.  Their play-acting turned real passion sets up an ongoing affair where again what is real and what is not (and maybe still just an act) is not at all clear, especially to husband Henry.  In both parts but in very different ways, Mr. Gorrebeeck is raw in his emotions, pushy in his desires, and sure of his own worth.

Emily Radosevich & Elijah Alexander
As Henry’s and his ex’s (Charlotte’s) daughter Debbie, Emily Radosevich is a confident, cocky teen ready to set out on her own at the ripe age of seventeen.  She pushes her parents’ boundaries as she straddles between child and adult, speaking her own sage advice to her father (whom she calls “Fa”) as he struggles with a writer’s block:  “Don’t write it, Fa, just say it” (something we can imagine the real playwright Stoppard has often said to himself).

The borders between art and life are further meshed by the choice of music linking the many scenes of The Real Thing.  Sound Designer Cliff Caruthers ensures the right mood is set for all entering audience members who are of an age to share Henry’s (and Stoppard’s) love for the rock songs of the 1960s and ‘70s, with hit after hit leading to more than just a few members singing along as they sit and wait for opening curtain.  The storyline of the play is then time and again accentuated and events underlined by inter-scene songs that reflect what has just happened (e.g., “Bring back that lovin’ feeling’, ‘cause it’s gone, gone, gone,” Righteous Brothers).  Like the playwright’s use of many words to get across his points, the repeated encore of the play’s themes in the chosen music (which also includes well-known opera numbers) may play well to some audience members’ liking and may very well be seen as overkill by others.

Nina Ball’s extremely flexible scenic design mixes and matches easily moved sofa pieces into a myriad of formations and reforms the sections of the colorful back wall built-in into a number of designs, further reminding us that there is no boundary that cannot be broken in this production.  Kurt Landisman’s lighting design of varying recessed and focused lights help to establish the various settings of the multi-scene play. 

Final kudos must go to Timothy Near for directing the flow and pace of the production in such a way to guarantee that the various plays within the play are just as real as real as the supposed real events and that the real events often slip quickly into something more like a stage show.  Her directorial prowess combined with the acting skills of her cast help make this Aurora Theatre production of The Real Thing a worthwhile and enjoyable outing, even if sometimes the playwright goes on and on with his sacred words.

Rating: 4 E

The Real Thing continues in extended run through March 5, 2017 at Aurora Theatre’s Main Stage, 2018 Addison Street, Berkeley.  Tickets are available online at https://auroratheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at 510-843-4822.

Photos Credit: David Allen

Monday, February 13, 2017

"Hand to God"


Hand to God
Robert Askins

Tyrone & Michael Doherty
In a brightly hued room full of rainbows, craft materials, and more than one happy Jesus, a friendly looking sock puppet pops out of a small, make-shift, cardboard theatre and starts telling us his version of the world’s beginning.  This is not the Genesis, seven-day version usually coming from a church puppet.  This is an alternative, Cliffs Notes history about how our stupid, and unshaven ancestors “rutted” about “careless in the night” and started camping together (“that’s where the trouble started”).  He tells us that “some asshole” invented right and wrong and that “right is for all of us ... wrong ... just for you”).  The cute puppet also offhandedly remarks that the same “motherfucker” who thought up “group kill also invented the devil.”  Before suddenly disappearing, our wide-mouthed historian with his heart-shaped tongue leaves us with a premonition of what is to come: “When I have acted badly, in order that I may stay around the campfire, all I have to do is say ... the devil made me do it.”

Welcome to Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s West Coast premiere of what is turning out to be the most-produced play in the 2016-2017 theatrical season across America: Robert Askin’s Hand to God.  Building on a Church tradition that goes back hundreds of years and continues today, the playwright brings to full life a puppet to be a witness of truth.  In this case, his revealed truths are increasingly full of blasphemy, vulgarities, and all the secrets that those around him do not want anyone to know – or even to admit to themselves.  And as the puppet blasts through his revelations, those within ear blasts reluctantly face, fight, and finally in some cases stand up to their own demons and the hurts, disappointments, and resulting loneliness their own plagues have showered upon them.

Laura Odeh & David Kelley
Margery is an attractive, middle-aged widow who is trying to deal with the recent, sudden death of her husband and a sullen, too-distant teenage son by volunteering at her church in an evening program where teens make puppets for spreading the good news about Jesus.  Her slightly older minister, Pastor Greg, both wants the kids to perform for an upcoming service and Margery to return his amorous suggestions (something she politely and repeatedly passes on).  Besides her introverted son Jason, the other two teen puppeteers are Jessica, a sweet but slightly nerdy girl with eyes for Jason, and the class bully and too-mature-for-his-age, Timothy (who also comes on strong to an intially repulsed Jessica).

Michael Doherty
Jason has created what turns out to be his alter-ego self in the form of a wide-eyed, green-sock puppet with orange locks (looking like a distant cousin of Sesame Street’s Kermit the Frog) – a palm pal he is reluctant ever to unhand.  Michael Doherty is astoundingly masterful in playing both the shy, seemingly innocent Jason and the buddy on his hand, Tyrone, who soon transforms to a monster out of his control.  Their first real gig occurs on the playground swings as he and Tyrone reenact for a fascinated Jessica a hilarious “Who’s On First” routine, alternating split-second-timed quips in similar voices with just a bit different intonations.  But then Tyrone ridicules Jessica for not knowing that Jason of course had not just made up this famous script.  And as he starts telling Jessica that Jason has the hots for her and “keeps touching himself in the dark” when he things of her, Tyrone’s voice suddenly deepens and begin its journey to something more threatening, evil, and, yes, devilish in its raspy tones.

Michael McIntire & Michael Doherty
Tyrone takes on his satanic personality with ‘truth-telling’ outbursts full of expletives never meant for a church’s interior – doing so especially when he is around those he (and Jason) see as truly demonic.  The puppet loses no time going after Timothy, whose cocky, irreverent, ruffian manners are played to the hilt by Michael McIntire – along with teen sex drives clearly sent skyward by raging hormones and by the presence of Jason’ mom, Margery.  Whenever Tyrone blasts into Timothy (and in time everyone else) with his own expletive-filled insults, Michael Doherty’s Jason-half is quick in the next second to be stunned, incredulous, and embarrassed with his own wide eyes, face of horror, and meek, “I don’t know what’s going on.”  As Tyrone develops sharp teeth and red-veined eyes, the harm he is able to inflict becomes potentially physically as well as verbally devastating.  All the time, he also wastes no opportunities to use his little pencil-thin, long arms to turn Jason’s head to look him eye to eye in order to face realities about the son’s anger toward his mom and his unrequited hurt in losing his father.  Together as one, Jason and Tyrone are the masterful results of exceptional acting by young Mr. Doherty.

Laura Odeh &  Michael McIntire
As Margery, Laura Odeh displays an incredibly wide range of emotions with big personality twists and turns.  Her initial motherly twitters and teases with the kids and her oh-so-polite turn-downs of the pastor’s come-ons provide little hint of the raging vulgarities and venom to come, much less the eventual sensually crazed responses to the teenager-turned-adult Timothy when he keeps advancing his sex drives on her.  Ms. Odeh’s performance is shockingly funny while also stunningly painful.  That the playwright has created a character who stretches our imagination to believe anyone would actually react in all the ways she does in no way diminishes the power or impact Margery has on the play and its overall message of facing one’s demons, accepting them, and moving on.

Michael Doherty & Carolina Sanchez
Carolina Sanchez also transforms before our very eyes, moving from the nice girl next door to a mover and shaker who is not about to let Tyrone destroy the sweet Jason she likes.  When she dons her own buxom beauty of a puppet (think Miss Piggy) and sets her up in a wild, sex-filled episode with Tyrone, not only does the ensuing scene make the Avenue Q puppet sex scene seem kindergarten in nature, the acting prowess of Ms. Sanchez (and once again, of Mr. Doherty) shines as two completely different scenes occur simultaneously, played by the same actors as both people and puppets.  Nothing to be said but simply brilliant writing, directing, and acting.

David Kelly is the awkwardly amorous preacher who tries to offer Margery the “waiting arms of the church” for solace – all the time clearly hoping she will leap into his one outspread arms (and eventually his bed).  There is oily sliminess spread over the good pastor but also a somewhat genuine righteous desire to help that gets tested to the fullest by all the devils rising around him in the church’s basement.  Mr. Kelly is perfectly suited credibly to pull off all sides of the exasperated lover and horrified minister. 

Coming off 2015’s superbly directed “One Man, Two Gov’nors” at the Rep, David Ivers returns to orchestrate another uproariously funny production that opens the floodgates to pour out scenes that titillate, shock, and totally satisfy.  Not only has he assembled a cast up to the task of his vision, his creative team could hardly be better in their own performances.  First among these is scenic designer Jo Winiarski whose rotating walls and scenes suddenly rising from below and emerging from the back depths are a show unto themselves.  (And there is some wonderful tongue-in-cheek touches, too, like a certain clock’s stuck time setting above the basement’s door.) 

Much aid comes from the outstanding lighting design by Alexander V. Nichols who helps highlight Tyrone’s threat of wickedness at just the right moments.  Meg Neville’s costumes try their best to convince us of Margery’s wholesome goodness, Timothy’s teenage but skin-deep bravado, and the Pastor’s aw-shucks exterior.  And of course, Amanda’s Villalobos’s puppet designs are key to the play’s total success.

At a time we all need to be shaken up to see the devils among us (as if we were not already enough shaken by each day’s latest Tweets and Facebook headlines), Berkeley Repertory’s production of Hand to God comes along. When all humans have once again left him alone in the same puppet theatre where we first met him, Tyrone alert us with his final words to be ready to find help from evil in the places/people where we least expect to find it.  Parting he says, “The thing about a savior is you never know where to look.  Might be just the place you saw the devil before.”

Rating: 5 E

Hand to God continues through March 19, 2017 on the Main Stage of Berkeley Repertory’s Peet’s Theatre, 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.

Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre