Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"Noises Off"


Noises Off
Michael Frayn

Monique Hafen, Richard Louis James, Kimberly Richards, Craig Marker, Nanci Zoppi   
“[W]e’ve got bags, we’ve got boxes.  Plus doors.  Plus words.  You know what I mean? ... I’m just saying.  Words.  Doors.  Bags.  Boxes.  Sardines.  Us.  OK?  I’ve made my point?”

And while the actors are dealing with all those props that somehow disappear and reappear through seven doors that one-by-one continually open and slam shut (all in split-second coordination), we deal with our own laughs and more laughs until jaws ache and sides hurt.  A play within a play where actors’ roles in one play that is being rehearsed and performed mirror and accentuate their ‘real life’ quirks and bad sides as seen in the other play – both being performed on and back stage – is the proven formula for one of the best (if not the best) farces ever to hit the stage since Shakespeare. Michael Frayn’s 1982 Noises Off is slapstick on steroids, with every trick in the book (trips, slips, slides, and tumbles) tried at least once to command a chuckle.  Noises Off is also either a director’s dream or nightmare.  As seen currently on the revolving stage of San Francisco Playhouse, this Noises Off is clearly Director Susi Damilano’s crazy, wacky dream come true!

Richard Louis James, Nanci Zoppi, Craig Marker, Patrick Lewis, Monique Hafen
It is midnight before the new day’s opening of Nothing On in the English town of Weston-super-Mare, and the final technical rehearsal is not going well – and we are still only at the beginning of Act One.  Dolly cannot remember her lines, her sardines, or where the phone goes when.  Gary cannot understand the playwright’s logic behind why he must carry a box and satchel upstairs (and refuses to move an inch until he does).  Brooke can only recite her lines and move her arms like a pre-programmed robot (but a damned pretty one); Frederick’s nose keeps bleeding; and no one knows if the old guy, Selsdon, will show up sloshed or not – or even show up.  Finally, the deep, tired voice of Lloyd the director booms from somewhere in the dark back of the theatre, “I’m starting to know what God felt like when he sat out there in the darkness creating the world ... Very pleased he’d taken his Valium.”

Somehow, but barely, the troupe does get through Act One by dawn of opening day; but a month later when we watch (as our Act Two of Noises Off) the first act of Nothing On reenacted at Ashton-under-Lyon (but from the backstage perspective), things have actually gone from bad to worse (but not yet worst ... That will be our Act Three).  Things are not so happy among our little acting family, it seems.  A lot can happen in a month -- romantic triangles, secret trysts and break-ups, plots of revenge, and of course, ol’ Selsdon finding the bottle of booze that everyone else is desperately hiding from him.  Expect many tricks and counter-tricks that involve everything from shoestrings to axes to prickly cacti – all happening backstage while the play proceeds (sort of) hidden from us, onstage.

And the closing week in Stockton-on-Tees a couple months later (our Act Three of this two-and-a-half-hour carnival ride called Noises Off) – this is the one that in watching, you can only hope that everyone in the San Francisco Playhouse acting team has plenty of medical insurance.  While we are almost rolling on the floor, they are actually slipping on sardines, falling over clutter, plunging through windows, and tripping the light fantastic down a flight of stairs. 

The Cast of "Noises Off" & "Nothing On"
This is a farce with a capital “F” that leaves no aspect of the theatre experience untouched in its joyous, full-tongue-in-cheek mimicking.  Last-minute calls to the audience that send old ladies up and down the aisles in confusion; the opening and shutting of the stage curtain that won’t; the use, disuse, and misuse of understudies; as well as what happens to lines of a play when the lines no longer fit what is really happening onstage – these and more find their way into a normal night of Nothing On.

All of the hilarity comes at us in non-stop, often breakneck speed through the timing genius and creativity of Susie Damilano and her cast, any of whom could easily have starred in the funniest of TV sitcoms of the famed 1950s.  At the top of the stellar list is Kimberly Richards as veteran actress Dotty Otley who plays the housekeeper Mrs. Clackett in Nothing On.  Her fitful frustration over ongoing forgetfulness is only topped by her temperamental tantrums backstage and righteous runs toward revenge against fellow actors that occur as the acts progress.

Patrick Russell & Monique Hafen
Another standout from beginning to end is the vacuous, vapid persona that comedian-extraordinaire Monique Hafen brings to Brooke Ashton, the actress who plays realtor Roger’s hot pick-up, Vicki, spending most of Nothing On in her scant, red, lacy undies.  Brooke remembers Ashley’s lines by silently but noticeably mouthing the lines of others leading up to hers; and once she comes to her part, every exaggerated movement and high, squeaky intonation must be done in the same way as how she memorized it – or she comes apart.  Ms. Hafen’s Brooke could be the original source of all the terrible, non-PC blonde jokes too often told at drunken parties.

Vicki/Brooke’s stage fling in Nothing On is Roger, who is Gary Lejeune in Noises Off --  both played with full, frenetic fervor by Patrick Russell who will eventually take a fall that has us all in the audience reaching to punch 911 for his emergency aid.  (But luckily our phones are turned off, being the obedient audience members we are.)  Funny also in his own brand of vacuity is Craig Marker as Frederick Fellowes in Noises Off, who has a good, ol’ boy quality, a propensity to stop action in order to ask stupid questions, and a habit of fainting every time he hears the word (shh-hh) blood. 

Greg Ayers
Nanci Zoppi is the ever-nice actress, Belinda Blair, who is often the only adult in the room -- until she finally isn’t.  Monica Ho is the stage manager Poppy who trades her initial blank, don’t-bother-me countenance in Act One to one full of news ready to burst but with no one to listen in Act Three.  Tim the all-around, Jack-of-All-Trades for the troupe gets pulled into everything no one else wants to do (fix the doors, do the payroll, go get some flowers for my girlfriend, appease the waiting audience,   Never quite on time but always delightful with his raspy, aged, Irish accent is Richard Louis James as Selsdon Mowbray, the actor who is supposed to be a near-retired robber in Nothing On but who has trouble leaving behind his whiskey bottle in Noises Off long enough to crash through the window.    Mr. James is the drunk you just want to hug. 
step into the drunk guy’s role); and Greg Ayres is near perfection in this push-me, pull-me role.

Overseeing – but not really all that successfully – this trying and temperamental troupe of thespians is the dashing, dapper Lloyd Dallas as the director who swoops in like God above with a voice vying for the next revival of The Ten Commandments.  However, this director is having his own casting problems on the side with one too many in the role as his girlfriend.  Johnny Moreno progressively and hilariously loses any sense of stage- or self-control as his problems of on-stage cast and off-stage capers mount into his own volcanic explosions.

None of the boisterous merriment of either Noises Off or Nothing On would be possible without the two-level, multi-door set designed to a ‘t’ for titillating, tickle-pink times by George Maxwell.  Much of the ongoing gags of both plays comes from the properties galore designed by Jacqueline Scott.  (Where do all those sardines come from?  I thought there was a current shortage.)  The perfectly timed sound effects so important for the plays’ jokes and jokesters have been masterfully designed and executed by Cliff Caruthers while the costumes of Abra Berman range from sheik to playgirl to petty robber and everything in between to add their own, many guffaws.  And special hats off to Migeul “Mike” Martinez whose stunt choreography direction will hopefully, miraculously see this cast as healthy the last night of the SF Playhouse run as the first.

What better way to escape the latest, often-depressing (but often just as ridiculous) headlines than to spend an evening with San Francisco Playhouse and Noises Off?  I doubt Artistic Director Bill English could have dreamed the real-life farce we are now living through when he selected this scripted one for the 2017 season; but thankfully he did and hopefully the seats will be full of butts for every, reality-escaping performance through its closing on May 13.

Rating: 5 E

Noises Off will continue through May 13, 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.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

"Everything That's Beautiful"


Everything’s That’s Beautiful
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder


Mattea Fountain as Morgan
Something happens unexpected, unplanned, unwanted.  Change.  Immediately, the surrounding system is in transition – neither in the state of what was once nor in the state of what might someday be.  Emotions follow rollercoaster tracks.  Communication falters.  Hearing is difficult; listening is impossible.  Just when it begins to feel better, it is not; and the cycle of mess and confusion starts again.  And at some point, it becomes clear that before the new can be accepted, the old must be grieved and let go.

In Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s new play, Everything’s That’s Beautiful, the system in flux is not a large company in the midst of merger woes or a team of executives with a new CEO.  The system is a family of four, one of whom is an eight-year-old boy, Morgan, who is ready to give up his action figures and boy’s clothes for a sparkly dress and a swimming lesson with a mermaid.  And that means a family – especially a father – must reach a point to say good-bye to a son no longer his before he can fully embrace a new, beautiful daughter.  The messy, confusing, unchartered journey of a family who are all in transition as one member moves from male to female is the focus of the world premiere of Everything’s That’s Beautiful, now in a stunning, heart-touching, and thoroughly captivating production by New Conservatory Theatre Center.

Transitions do not tend to come one at a time.  They wait until a mob of changes join together to slam through our door, invade our peaceful abode, and overwhelm us with unwelcome surprises.  For the Harris Family, not only is former-boy Morgan now a cute, pixie girl, the family has moved from a small, Midwest town to New York City to “start over” in a place that might better accept her; both her parents (Luke and Jess) are in new jobs; the family is now crammed into a meager apartment rather than in a big house; and teenage brother Theo is just being how all teenagers are when parents make stupid decisions that disrupt their lives. 

William Giammona, Dana Zook & Mattea Fountain
And as in any system where so many new balls are being juggled at once, s—t happens.  Dad does not (yet again) show up with Mom for a weekly appointment with the family therapist who is working with Morgan.  Electrician Dad in his temporary job as maintenance guy at a run-down waterpark and school-teacher Mom in her summer gig as a waitress in a greasy spoon both begin to have wondering eyes and lonely hearts.  Son and brother Theo feels totally ignored and cannot believe it is OK for Morgan to become a girl but he cannot pierce his lip.  Tension becomes heavier than the air before a summer storm, and the inevitability of some unexpected lightning strikes increases by the minute.

And through it all, Morgan just wants to learn how to float in a pool like a mermaid so she can finally feel happy.

Director Ed Decker and his creative team have orchestrated an idyllic, near- dreamlike atmosphere within which waves of this family’s ups and downs occur.  Gracefully carved curves, walls, and formations provide the feeling of the sea in Devin Kasper’s impressively attractive set where hidden, invisible pools, shores, and inlets are able to emerge as the story calls upon them.  Equally arresting in effect and beauty is the inlaid lighting tracks; the shifting hues of azure, purple and emerald; and the ripple shadows of water that are just a part of Virginia Herbert’s overall lighting design.  Sara Witsch provides soothing sounds of the sea with their mesmerizing effects that counter the oft-stormy clouds billowing in the family’s own skies.  The costumes and props of Jorge R. Hernandez accent the realities of summer jobs, the quirkiness of a teenage son, and the fantasies of a little girl.  And the entire production moves at a pace well conceived by its director with many touches to underline with sensitivity and heart the human drama of change with its unexpected surprises and its longed-for final acceptance.

Nick Moore & Mattea Fountain
Among a cast who to a person is near perfect in their portrayals, a first round of kudos must go to eleven-year-old Mattea Fountain.  The maturity she brings to this difficult part of gender transitions betrays her young age.  The sheer joy that permeates her tiny stature from head to toe when she first dons a dress or when she experiences an initial floating in water is exhilarating to behold.  And during those moments when she seems to be the only adult in the family, she leaves no doubt in our minds that this child brings some life-born wisdom the others have yet to attain.

As Morgan’s mother Jess, Dana Zook exudes patience, empathy, and concern that is a mother’s to show.  At the same time, the stress of all the shifts in her and her family’s lives also is evident in her exhausted shoulders, rest-derived eyes, and a voice that sometimes is half sigh-half cry.  Brother Theo (Nick Moore) is exactly the sometimes obnoxious, often pissed-off, always hormone-exploding teenager that a fifteen-year-old should be – with the adoring brother and sweet kid/son popping out unawares at just the right moments. 

It is in the role of the dad where the crux of this family’s transition struggles is most mirrored.  As Luke, William Giammona is macho guy who is doing his best to be sensitive – even if in an awkward, jerky manner at times.  His own transformations are a hike through an unchartered wilderness, with a couple of traps he too easily falls.  He alternates between an ‘I’m cool ... I got this’ attitude and a ‘I don’t think I can do this any longer’ collapse.  When Luke blurts in the midst of emotional upheaval, “I want her to be normal ... I want her to be the son I wanted to have ... When I look at Morgan, I feel embarrassed,” Mr. Giammona makes us shudder in a combination of pity, understanding, and disgust.

William Giammona & April Deutschle
Sexy and friendly Gaby (April Deutschle) is the key trap that Luke soon finds himself caught within.  As a Jill-of-all-trades at the water park, her main role is to star in a mermaid show – a sight Morgan, Theo, and Luke all like to watch (for varying reasons, of course).  Ms. Deutschle is tender and playful in portraying Gaby’s budding friendship with her new swimming pupil, Morgan; and her Gaby finds that she is perhaps a bit too tender and playful with her other new pal, Luke.

Tim Huls & Dana Zook
Tim Huls appears in two different roles, each performed with much credibility.  As the family’s new therapist, Dr. Miller, he shows the kind of empathetic compassion but also subtle directness that any one would hope to find in a counselor.  As Will, a guy hanging out reading obscure books in the coffee shop where Jess is working, he keeps his eye on her as she wipes down the counter, trying his best to hide a nascent and dimpled smile that only get bigger once she notices him.  His Will is particularly fun to watch as he hems and haws and practically dances a jig to engage Jess in some afternoon give-and-take sharing.

For the most part, Ms. Wilder’s script works extremely well illustrating the ripple effects that happen in any family when one member makes a life-altering decision.  That this person is an eight-year-old boy making a decision most of us associate as one even adults struggle a lifetime to make, if they ever do, is astounding and altogether timely to behold.  This script does ask us to employ a degree of suspended disbelief to accept that similar temptations are contemplated independently by both parents at the same time, especially without being given many solid clues beforehand.  But on the whole, the first outing for this world premiere script holds up exceptionally well.

In one month, New Conservatory Theatre Center has opened two world premieres (the other being the currently playing Leaving the Blues by Jewelle Gomez).  Everything That’s Beautiful is an important addition to the American stage and deserves, even demands, to be seen nationwide for the lessons it can teach about the unconditional love our children deserve, even as they turn out altogether different than we thought and even hoped they would be. 

Rating: 4 E

Everything That’s Beautiful continues through April 23, 2017 on the Walker Stage of New Conservatory Theatre, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema


Saturday, March 25, 2017

"Nora"


Nora
Ingmar Bergman

 

The Cast of Nora
When Ibsen premiered A Doll’s House in 1879, controversy immediately erupted when his banker’s wife and mother of three challenges the society’s definition of marriage and walks defiantly away from hers, seeking to discover who she really is beyond those two, domestic titles.  At the time, Ibsen said he was inspired by the prevailing belief that “a woman cannot be herself in modern society” because [society is] “an exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint” (italics added). 

It is that final part of Ibsen’s statement that makes Shotgun Players’ current production of Nora – Ingmar Bergman’s 1988, pared-down version of Ibsen’s original – so timely, in a very unfortunate way.  After seeing the manner the most prepared candidate ever running for U.S. president (who happened to be a woman) was treated and compared by both press and public as opposed to the way was the least-ever prepared candidate and to-be winner (of course, a man), Ibsen’s statement and reason for writing his play now feels more relevant than ever – a sad commentary 125 years later and after women supposedly won their full rights long ago.  Shotgun Players presents a compelling portrait of a woman who transforms before our eyes, becoming a pillar of confidence and determination – a metamorphosis emanating from a decision bold and justified but a decision all others around her deem inappropriate in every respect, all because she is a woman.  And while we watch wanting to see the play as an interesting museum piece, we slowly realize that the play actually mirrors attitudes still too dominant in our current world.

Kevin Kemp & Jessma Evans
Nora is a woman who holds a secret she describes as “the source of my pride and joy.”  She is slowly, meticulously paying back a sizable loan she covertly made three years prior to save the life of her husband -- Torvald, now a banking manager – in order to send him to a warmer client to recover from a debilitating condition.  To obtain the loan as a woman, she forged her dying father’s name – an act of love now threatening her seemingly perfect life.  Nils Krogstad, the source of her surreptitious loan, is now about to be fired by her husband and promises to reveal her crime of forgery to all the world (especially her straight-and-narrow, patriarchal husband) unless she can convince her husband to reverse the planned action.  But in a world where a wife’s place is in a “play room” as her husband’s “doll thing,” influencing her husband to reverse an act he has already made public leads him to only one conclusion. “I would lose face,” he says appalled at the thought of doing what she want – an outcome worse than death in his world of total machismo.

The magnetic pull is overwhelming to keep our eyes locked on Jessma Evans as she portrays Nora and ignore all else.  With high, full cheeks that call attention to mischievous dimples and sparkling eyes, her beginning persona can be totally believed as she declares, “It is truly wonderful to be alive.”  How proud she is to tell her shocked and skeptical childhood friend, Kristine Linde, about the secret loan and the things she has done since to make money to pay it off.  “So fun ... making money ... almost like being a man,” she reveals with confident accomplishment broadcasting from her being in every way Ms. Evans can possibly muster. 

Jessma Evans
But as the threats of her loan shark come to fruition and reactions mount against her, her light-hearted Nora transforms to someone almost not recognizable, yet increasingly more real and admirable.  There is a transition period as she is slowly taking in the changes occurring around her when her countenance becomes frozen -- eyes not moving and mouth slightly open, not speaking.  As the realization becomes evidently clear to her that she is no longer who she once was and now must take the step to see who she now is, dramatic shifts in her persona occur.  It is as if a different actress has stepped into the role of Nora, so dramatic are those alterations of voice, stance, and manner.  In a performance to be long remembered, Jessma Evans becomes every woman -- every person -- who has suddenly had that epiphanic moment of a life-changing decision that feels so sure, even when there is no supportive confirmation offered from anyone around her. 

Surrounding Nora in this journey she did not wish upon herself are people whose relationships with her and each other are defined by a tangled web of ill-conceived and/or ill-received decisions made under male-dominated, societal norms.  Childhood friend and now-widow, Kristine Linde, suddenly reappears with secrets and an air of mystery that Erin Mei-Ling Stuart emulates through her dark, hovering presence countered by an air of genuine concern (but not approval) she bestows on Nora’s revelation about the loan and the resulting blackmail.  With a set jaw and eyes that have clearly endured suffering, Kristine is a woman strong in nature and resolve in her own right but who still operates within the boundaries of societal dictates – boundaries she hopes to pull Nora back safely within.

Michael J. Asberry is Dr. Rank, a wealthy and close family friend of Torvald and Nora.  Now near death, the congenial, gracious, and dignified Doctor with a voice deep, smooth, and soothing is ready to reveal some secrets of his own before passing out of Nora’s life – revelations whose reception shows even Nora still carries her own deep-set, societal do’s and don’ts just as she is about to reject those that are entrapping her.

Bearing down on Nora face-to-face in his demands and threats, Adam Elder’s Nils Krogstad is absolutely demonic in a desperate, yet still pitiful manner as he seeks reinstatement into his job at the bank.  The stalking, weasel part of Nils is however not the whole of who this man is.  Mr. Elder is masterful in gradually revealing a much more nuanced, complex man – one who has made his own tough choices for another’s well-being and one who has had his own share of disappointments.

On the one hand, all-adoring of Nora but on the other, all-controlling of her and suffocating any attempts she makes toward independent, self-expression, Torvald is dripping in his handsome charm while also over-flowing in ego-and-male-centric attitudes.  The result is that he continually boxes his wife into an ever-collapsing definition of who she is allowed to be (well illustrated in Maya Linke’s set design and a stage that becomes ever smaller with an approaching and thus threatening back wall).  A role written with much, rich potential in its attract/avoid range of possibilities, Kevin Kemp is unfortunately too one dimensional in his approach to Torvald, over relying on a constantly loud, cymbal-like, and almost stomping approach in delivering his lines (and then too often stumbling in their delivery, at least on the night I happened to see him). 

Director Beth Wilmurt and her creative team warn us in a number of clues that there are winds of change, probably not good ones, coming into Nora’s life.  In a heavy, black cloak of mourning (costumes by Maggie Whitaker), Kristine is the first person we see and one who lingers long on the sidelines with foreboding side glances before entering Nora’s house.  A low, uneasy, and moaning set of notes is heard somewhere in the distant and barely discernable background as part of Matt Stines overall outstanding sound design.  Already mentioned is the wall papered with women’s silhouetted heads (as if paper dolls) that moves ever slowly as Nora’s chances of happiness in this same house become ever fewer.  Even the seemingly awkward manners that set pieces are moved in and out of the one door in the wall are done in ways that seem to illustrate how difficult it is to shift anything anchored firmly in this society’s landscape.

Pared down from Ibsen’s three acts to one long act (one hour, forty-five minutes), Shotgun Players’ version of Ingmar Bergman’s Nora moves in a well-paced, no-exit manner toward a decision that today still feels unnatural and unsettling yet at the same time, justified and triumphant.  The real unease upon leaving is how long will it take until a generation watching this nineteenth-century story will see it as a piece of long-ago history and not still a part of current reality.

Rating: 4 E

Nora continues through April 23, 2017 at at the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available at https://shotgunplayers.org/  or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Pak Han

Friday, March 24, 2017

"Seminar"


Seminar
Theresa Rebeck


David Prete, Kaythi Win, Matthew Kropshot, Sarah Haas & Jacob Soss
Douglas smacks of pedigree: famous uncle playwright from Harvard, his own la-tee-dah college degree, a sure-fire route to a New Yorker publication, and a tendency to drop words like “interiority and exteriority” into conversations.  Izzy can write well (and knows it) and just wants to be famous as fast as possible writing sex-filled novels (and putting herself wearing little on the covers).  Kate has been working on a story for six years and has received ‘encouraging’ comments at expensive summer, writing workshops like “much better than most” and “nice things in it.”  Martin cannot pay his rent and is afraid to share any of his writing (and he already hates Douglas after five minutes of the first seminar).

And they have all paid $5000 for ten sessions with a well-known author and editor, Leonard, who would rather be either tramping through a war zone like Somalia or in bed with one of his hot, female students than stuck in a room with these no-names.

In a wonderful mirroring of life imitating art, four aspiring actors and students of San Jose State University, College of Humanities and Arts, join forces with well-known, Bay Area director and actor, Amy Resnick, to stage Theresa Rebeck’s 2011 Broadway play, Seminar, about four post-grads hoping to learn from a master how to make it big in fiction-writing.  The weekly class -- held in Kate’s upper west end, NYC apartment (9 rooms at $800/month rent control rent) – becomes a scene of shifting alliances and intense battles, romantic trysts and jealousies, as well as moments of unexpected glory and of utter humiliation.  And all occurs amidst much drama and brouhaha of being twenty-something in search of self, fame, and sex.

Familiar with stage and film companies from New York to Los Angeles, veteran actor, director, and writer David Prete joins the otherwise SJSU student cast as Leonard, the for-hire writing instructor for the four would-be authors.  His late-forties Leonard drips in egocentrism as he enters in his tight jeans, black leather coat, and grey, silk scarf – more eager to talk about his recent forays into war-torn zones of poverty and his near-death experiences there than to pay much attention to the students or their writing (that is, of course, except for the bosom-showing and totally hot Izzy already giving him the eye).  Leonard lives up to his reputation as “a little rough,” but without the “a little.”  Mr. Prete is deliciously brutal in his sarcasm, demonstrating it at once after reading the first half-dozen words of Kate’s six-years-in-the-making short story.  “I see the semi-colon, and I know more is coming but I am not sure I want to go there,” he blandly remarks, handing her back the masterpiece-in-long-making.  At the same time, one quick read of Izzy’s hastily written, two-pager sends a nearly visible, electric charge ripping through his body as he locks eyes with the paper’s author (already licking her lips and leaning in for his better view of her low neckline).  “A sexual edge ... the tone of Asiatic exoticism,” he gushes, just before the two head out for a post-class, hastily arranged date.

One by one, Leonard takes on the student writers in each week’s foray, dropping in lines left and right that Theresa Rebeck has awarded his character about writers and writing.  Many of the one-liners are loaded with self-loathing for his own profession by someone who is supposedly a master of the art.  (“Writers in their natural state are about as civilized as feral cats.”)  But readers time and again come off even worse. (“The problem with being a writer is that all your readers are human-beings” [the last word then repeated with a tone of deep disgust].)  As the play progresses, the playwright does release Leonard from his narrow range of erotic cynicism and cliché-like pronouncements and allows Mr. Prete to uncover deeper, more revealing layers of Leonard – done so with visceral emotion by the actor as he exposes who the man might really be behind his curtain of Mr. Too-Cool-and-Sexy.

In her role as director, Amy Resnick has taken this group of student actors and shaped them into a fine, much-accomplished ensemble.  Each has moments to show off a range of nicely honed skills as they deliver many of the funnier moments of this often tense comedy that works hard (sometimes too hard) also to be a thought-provoking commentary on writers and their search for the perfect manuscript. 

Matthew Kropschot is the ever-wanting-to-please-and-impress Douglas, whose casually crossed legs, plaid and bow ties, and nods of intense interest to anything Leonard is saying at the moment smack of a guy just biding his time to the fame he believes is already his to grab.  Kaythi Win exudes desire for any and all men around her as a path for her Izzy to do real-time research for the paperbacks she will soon be cranking out by the dozens for riches and talk-show appearances – while at the same time, there is a palpable vulnerability when she sometimes drops for a minute her defenses.  Martin (Jacob Soss) -- who is reluctant to show Leonard his writing -- does like to be constantly in the spotlight with continuous outbursts on any subject but himself, each full of volume, vigor, and often vehemence and with flaying hands and arms even more active than his ranting mouth.  But Martin also has expressive eyes that increasingly give away some deeper passion and plan that is going unexpressed. 

Rounding out the cast in particularly noteworthy and impressive fashion is Sarah Haas as Kate.  Kate is the first to be rejected outright by Leonard and done so without his reading past a few words that lead him to condemn her as stuck in Jane-Austin-like sentiment.  Kate still is willing to take on Leonard’s sexist attitudes and confront his bias against women writers, but she also retreats into ice cream, chips, and homemade cookie dough after his repeated ridicule.  (“I am a terrible writer, and I am committed to get fat.”)  Ms. Haas displays over the course of Kate’s journey to prove her writing prowess an incredibly wide range of emotion and expression – comedic and serious – shown in vocal acrobatics, subtle and not-at-all-subtle facial poses, and an energy that is contagious whether she is bouncing about the room or just sitting still.  Her Kate is a joy to watch from beginning to end.

This university production has a big-stage, uptown look and feel to it due to a stellar creative team. Andrea Bechert’s set is beautifully attired as a ritzy New York flat with much art of masters on the walls, fine furniture of leather, and peeps into other, well-appointed rooms and hallways.  A later (and cleverly accomplished) shift to Leonard’s office is crammed with mementoes of his world travels.  The lighting of Steven Mannshardt shows off well both settings and separates in just the proper ways the many scenes of the play.  Anthony Sutton’s canny sound design calls on classic rock often with a tongue-fully-in-cheek to introduce scenes.  Last but far from least, Cassandra Carpenter captures the quirky and defining essence of each character’s personality through her designed costumes (and notes a progressing transformation of Kate with necklines that hilariously dip ever broader and deeper).

There are times when Theresa Rebeck’s script feels a little too predictable and too precious (with its inserted remarks about writers and writing), but Amy Resnick and this talented mixture of her professional and university team have come up with a Seminar that certainly does San Jose State University’s College of Humanities and the Arts proud and is well worth a visit to the Hammer Theatre Center.

Rating: 4 E

Seminar continues its short run through March 25, 2017 at San Jose State University’s Hammer Theatre Center, 101 Paseo De San Antonio, San Jose.  Tickets are available at http://www.sjsu.edu/hammertheatre/ or by calling (408) 924-8501.

Photo Credit: Marissa McPeak

Thursday, March 23, 2017

"You for Me for You"


You for Me for You
Mia Chung



Elissa Beth Stebbins, Kathryn Han & Jomar Tagatac
The driven desire against immense odds to escape despot regimes where personal freedoms are few-to-none, food is scarce to the point of hunger, and family members are often at risk of being whisked away in the middle of the night is certainly a part of our current, global consciousness.  Every day we read or watch clips of refugees fleeing across dangerous borders and waters to countries that may or may not welcome them – our own country now being among the latter group of countries shunning many refugees.  What we may sometimes overlook is how excruciatingly difficult that initial decision to leave actually is – no matter how deplorable are the conditions – and how retching it is to family members who find themselves separated, a pain that never goes away. 

In her 2012 play that premiered at Wooly Mammoth in Washington, D.C., You for Me for You, Mia Chung employs fantastical elements, humor, time/space fast-forwards and flashbacks, and a number of symbols and metaphors to provide a sometimes searing, sometimes confusing look at the refugee’s experience – both from the perspective of making it across the border and from being the one left behind.  Crowded Fire Theater presents an imaginative version of You for Me for You at the intimate Potrero Stage (formerly, Thick House), with impressive production values and a fine cast.  Under the creative direction of M. Graham Smith, this rendition is so nonlinear and jumbled at times in its references, reversals, and dream-like sequences as to leave the audience in a final state of blur as to what really happened.

Two sisters in the beginning sit in front of a sole bowl of rice and a small side of kimchi, both clearly near starvation and both reluctant to take the food from the other.  Their North Korean existence is portrayed vividly and with an element of dark-humor caricature as dismally bleak for the individual trapped in a society where all is focused on a supreme leader.  The younger sister, Junhee, begs her older, more cautious and sicker sister, Minhee, to come with her to “cross over.”  As they are led in the dark by a smuggler (Junhee literally dragging the scared Minhee who does not want to leave behind her currently-absent husband and son), they are warned, “The Crossing has a large appetite.” 

In fact, Junhee soon successfully finds herself in front of an immigration officer to get into the U.S. while Minhee is swallowed into the bottom of a dry well before she can make it across the border.  There, she is left to hover in darkness, fear, hunger, and regret. 

The bulk of the play’s one hundred minutes is then devoted to the experiences of Junhee’s assimilation to become an American and to Minhee’s memories and hallucinations (or at least, that is what I interpret them as) of her search for her lost son and husband.  Throughout, the play never lets us forget the unresolved pain of the two sisters’ separation nor the power of their love for each other.

Both Grace Ng and Kathryn Han leave memory-lasting images in their singular, sensitive, and often searing portrayals of Junhee and Minhee, respectively.  Ms. Han’s Minhee is at first calmly self-controlled in her near-slow-motion reactions to her own desperate situations.  All that changes as she begins her mind-driven, panicked searches in often strange, non sequitur sequences for her young son lost to one of the regime’s notorious reeducation camps and for a husband who supposedly sacrificed the son for his own political ladder-climbing.  Ms. Han displays an impressively wide range of emotions from quietly lost and resigned to frantically determined and bravely assertive as the mother-wife-sister left in a hell with nothing but her fantasies.

Grace Ng & Julian Green
The play’s script alternates many times between scenes of Minhee’s dreams and Junhee’s first few years after arriving in New York where the need for scenes to be parallel in actual time plays no part.   Grace Ng’s Junhee provides an informative and plausible face to Every Immigrant in modern-day America as she maneuvers from job to job – steadily, step-by-step figuring out and beginning to thrive in the American experience of frozen yoghurt shops, baseball games, and stores full of goods of every imaginable sort.  She gradually transforms from the silent, nodding, and rarely understanding just-arrived to the now-knowing, much-assimilated persons we pass every day on the street whose amazing, background stories of suffering and survival are no longer outwardly readable.  Junhee along the way meets a different sort of immigrant, an African-American man just arrived in NYC from Alabama -- a happy, easy-going, highly likable Julian Green whose unnamed Man is ever persistent in his patient and persistent pursuit of the shy Junhee.

Grace Ng & Elissa Beth Stebbins
The immigrant’s experience is particularly illustrated though Liz, an ever-changing character who shows up in Junhee’s immigration journey in roles such as border processor, fast-food cashier, patient in hospital, and hospital personnel manager.  Elissa Beth Stebbins is award-deserving for her several cameo appearances.  Her speech is first heard by Junhee as a jumble-mumble of nonsensical syllables, later as a mix of words arranged in an order not making sense (and punctuated by more nonsense sounds), and increasingly with each new role finally progressing to full, understandable speech.  Her performance is perhaps the best example of what it must be like to arrive not knowing a language and immediately thrust into daily motions of shopping, working on a first job, and trying to discover the norms of a new culture.

Jomar Tagatac takes on a number of varied, North-Korean-based roles ranging from a cartoon-like doctor to a money-hungry smuggler who has a change of heart to the lost husband of Minhee (among a number of other roles).  It is as this final part that he is particularly powerful as he describes to his wife the tortuous journey toward his own demise – all the time as tears and mucous flow from his eyes and nose.

Jomar Tagatac, Kathryn Han & "Bear"
Watching Mia Chung’s play means having a high tolerance for letting scenes float by and either letting go of the ones that do not always make a lot of logical sense or just accepting that ambiguity is the desired norm.  We are not given a lot of clues how to interpret, for example, a smiling, Yogi-like bear that repeatedly appears in some scenes.  We never quite know if we are watching what actually happens to Minhee or what she is remembering in a fevered dream or what she wishes in her mind would happen as she drifts into a hungered stupor.  And as the play draws to its climax, events become even more hazy as to what has been real and what has just happened and why.

But in any case, there is no argument that David K.H. Elliott has created a lighting design and James Ard a sound design that are both stellar in the telling of these often-surreal sequences.  Each has out-performed for a theatre as small as the space before us, and their ingenuity enhances the overall experience immensely.  Lynne Sofer’s contributions as dialect coach certainly pay off for each of the actors, from the drawling Man from the South to the incredible verbal acrobatics of Liz to the Korean accents which sound very authentic to the untrained ear.  Maya Linke’s most visible element of the scenic design (a large cellular model in the background ... or is it a honeycomb?) is part of the play’s unexplained, mysterious symbolism, but her other elements of the many changing scenes easily flow in and out and work beautifully (as also do Michelle Mulholland’s costumes).

Leaving behind the necessity to understand what occurred and did not occur in some realm of reality, the audience viewer of Crowded Fire’s You for Me for You certainly leaves with renewed impressions of the would-be and actual immigrant experience from countries much different in culture, safety, and independence than ours.  And in this day and time, that in itself is certainly a major accomplishment and a key reason to see Mia Chung’s freewheeling, often puzzling, but always intriguing play.

Rating: 3 E

You for Me for You continues through April 1, 2017 as a Crowded Fire Production at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.crowdedfire.org/.

Photo Credits: Pak Han

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"LENI"


LENI
Sarah Greenman



Stacy Ross
How much responsibility does an artist own when art is evidently going to be used as propaganda?  Can an artist become so engrossed in the work’s creation to become oblivious to the content’s meaning and to the primary actors that are a part of its making?  Is groundbreaking perfection of beauty and a positive, direct influence on future generations of art-makers a high enough accomplishment to forgive an artist’s past sins?  And why is the only woman out of one hundred thirteen filmmakers associated with Hitler the one person who was put on trial, post World War II, while some of the men went on to become highly sought after and celebrated worldwide, including in the U.S? 

These are just some of many questions that readily come to the fore in watching the Bay Area premiere of Sarah Greenman’s LENI as intimately and imaginatively staged in Harry’s Upstage of the Aurora Theatre Company. 

German film director -- and innovator of that art form in the 1930s and early ‘40s -- Leni Riefenstahl is still studied and emulated to this day for the revolutionary techniques she invented and the stunning, unprecedented beauty she created in two key films:  Triumph of the Will (1935) and Olympia (1938).  At the same time, from the end of WWII until she died in 2003 at the age of 101, Leni Riefenstahl was shunned, ostracized, and even hated by most anyone outside of Fascist circles for her close association with Hitler and particularly for the glorifying in her films of the Fuhrer and his plans for an Aryan-dominated world.  Until the end of her life, she continued to claim her concerns were only art for art’s sake with never a thought for creating propaganda for the Third Reich – something few, if any, ever came to accept as truth.

Stacy Ross & Martha Brigham
Taking a cue from the filmmaker’s drive for innovative, up-close exploration of her subjects, Sarah Greenman digs deep to discover the possible truth about this cinematic enigma by having her 1930s young and beautiful self interact directly with her older self soon after her death has been announced and life chronicled in the New York Times.  The medium is their joint project to create a film about her life – post her own death -- focusing particularly on the questions of her relationship with Hitler and the purposes she had in making her films.  The two alternate roles of film director and principal actor, with the younger Leni taking the lead role of self during the mid-‘30s to mid-‘40s and the older Helene taking her own witness chair to reenact post-war interrogations and trials where she was drilled for information on her relationship with Hitler and the Nazi Party.  Throughout, there is the attempt by the reincarnated Riefenstahl to make yet again another “perfect” film – this one on her own life -- often stopping action and demanding retakes in order to make her answers more presentable for history and the modern audience.

Martha Brigham & Stacy Ross
As directed by Jon Tracy, the resulting back-and-forth between her two selves is gripping and often-electric theatre – especially when interspersed with snippets of the very films the two discuss.  The younger Leni often challenges the older Helene in ways that greatly irritate and upset the latter (“When did you first find out [about the atrocities of the Third Reich]?” ... “Why did you never take the responsibility for your part in this?”).  The older persona stalwartly and proudly stands by claims such as “when I am working, all I see is the art ... I only see the work.”  To her, Hitler was the “choreographer” while she and her films were “only the recorder.”  But for all her pushing of the older Helene to own some of her own doing, when put in the spotlight as the younger Leni, the younger easily becomes the overly friendly, close to flirty upstart filmmaker in her one-on-ones with Hitler, unafraid to push him hard for required funding for her film’s perfection and unabashedly eager to make him look as good as she could on the big screen. 

Martha Brigham plays the young, bold Leni with an edge sharp and exact.  When in front of the unseen Fuhrer, there is a mature confidence that emanates from her every, thirty-something muscle and move.  One can almost read the well-thought-out, step-by-step plan plotted by the young filmmaker whose sole purpose is clearly to win and keep the special confidence and camaraderie of Hitler so that she can continue to make her films in the manner her perfective ways dictate.  Employing eyebrows that speak their own words, hands that move quickly and then freeze with their own message, and a formal posture that quickly loosens to denote persistent passion for her art, Ms. Brigham is exceptional in the role of Leni.

Equally if not even more impressive is Stacy Ross as the older Helene who emerges from the hereafter (a shadow world behind closed Venetian blinds at one end of the floor-level stage) to take charge directing the film of her just-passed life.  Often speaking through a broad and forced smile or in between fast-alternating smiles and grimaces, Helene fiercely watches the reenactment of scenes of the younger Leni to make sure they meet her approval, stepping in to edit where needed for a more perfect -- if not necessarily a more accurate -- take.  But it is when clips of her films are shown that we get a real glimpse of just how the older filmmaker truly sees herself and her contribution to the world.  In those moments, Ms. Ross’s Helene radiates to the point of almost a luminous glow as she stares in awe at her own wondrous creations.  The depth of her own ego and her bitterness of later treatment is also fully telecast when Ms. Ross brings all manner of bile to voice and demeanor as she snarls, “I am on trial for creating the modern world ... Scheisse!” 

Martha Brigham & Stacy Ross
A low-budget, movie studio has been created by Nina Ball with full face validity for the mid-1930s era, complete with adjustable spot lights, director’s chair, and minimal set pieces for the required scenes.  The sense of movie-making as well as of the other-worldliness of reincarnation is especially achieved through a lighting design by Kurt Landisman that is a show unto itself – one of the better lighting accomplishments that I have seen yet this theatre season.  Theodore J.H. Hulsker continues his fine reputation as sound designer with a number of striking touches, including a soft, mysterious ‘whoosh’ that signals when filming commences of the life story that is taking place before us. 

An unsettling aspect of Jon Tracy’s direction of Sarah Greenman’s script in the dark, shadowy, and almost claustrophobic Harry’s Upstage is the way Helene often interacts directly at the watching audience, often only inches from the faces of those on the two first rows on either side of the stage.  She all but accuses us of being ignorantly complicit in honoring her legacy by our own addiction to the modern ads, sports broadcasts, and movie techniques that all draw on her innovations.  “You want to be glorious ... So do I,” she sneers.  We are left with the uneasy realization that we probably do not often enough question or too soon overlook the morals and motives of many of the great artists we glorify on a day-to-day basis -- both those current and long past. 

If there is any downside to Ms. Greenman’s script, it is an ending that is a bit like the clips of film shown:  It rather crumples and burns out all too quickly before final resolution.  But, this is also a “film” that is being manufactured to include both fact and fiction in an attempt to create a life more perfect than it actually was.  To that end, there is not an ending that can be tied into a nice, complete knot; for the task itself is a given impossibility.

Using a stellar duet of proven actors under the acute direction of Jon Tracy and with a lighting schemata of Kurt Landisman that produces the feel of black-and-white movie-making of the 1930s, Aurora Theatre Company stages a LENI that is fascinating, thought-provoking, and brimming with its own claim of being high art.

Rating: 4 E

LENI continues in a well-deserved, extended run through May 7, 2017 on the Harry’s Upstage of Aurora Theatre Company, 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