Thursday, May 24, 2018

"Scapegoat"


Scapegoat
William Bivins

Rhonnie Washington with Drew Reginald Watkins & Douglas B. Giorgis
Scapegoat is under attack from all sides.  The black super hero in green tights  was once the pioneering, main star for Blam Comics, making his creator, Clive, a real live hero for graphically describing in exciting action drawings the African American experience.  But years of declining readership and sales means Scapegoat may be on the corporate chopping block.  Even the mid-life Clive’s twenty-something friend, Dwayne, admits in no uncertain terms, “The brothers don’t want to read about an Uncle Tom super hero.”  

Bowing to his agent’s prodding (who is also his ex-wife, Lexy), Clive decides to kill off Scapegoat in one last comic issue; but just as he makes that decision, Dwayne is gunned down by a white cop who does not not like his looks or his hanging out in a mostly white neighborhood.  That leads to the final issue becoming Killer Kop versus Scapegoat, with Scapegoat finally succumbing to white hate.  And with that publication, sales soar; and riots break out in three U.S. cities.

Douglas B. Giorgis & Drew Reginald Watkins
And so sets up William Bivins’ world premiere play, Scapegoat, now part of Playground’s Festival of New Works, produced in association with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre.  The eighty-minute work weaves a number of story and thematic threads into its many, short scenes.  The current wave of young, black men being the targets too often of police (usually white) is the central heartbeat of the fast-paced piece.  Onto that throbbing strand the playwright adds a man’s haunting self-doubts and warring inner conflicts as he struggles to make sense of his life; his tension-packed relationship with his aging, white mother (a once Civil Rights activist); and the legacy he carries for a Civil Rights lawyer father who abandoned the mother and young son.  To all that, he also includes cameo glimpses of Clive’s in-progress graphic History of Racism (Hello, Thomas Jefferson) while at the same time he pens a story line of Clive and Lexy suddenly finding a new spark in a love relationship that had been supposedly extinguished.  And throughout, his two comic arch enemies, Scapegoat and Noon Day Demon, periodically appear to make their cases for the internal battles going on in Clive’s head about his own worth and existence.

For a play not quite reaching one-and-a-half-hours, that is a script that could fill several comic books with its intertwined stories; but somehow director Norman Gee has figured out how to keep the various undercurrents moving ahead without losing overall focus.  In the end, this is a story about one African American man’s war with himself to figure out his destined and proper role in carrying on his parent’s Civil Rights fights against the inbred racial injustice of America.  At the same time, Clive is carrying some deep, dark wound that has festered his entire life but has yet to reveal its source.  Against his own struggles as a celebrated, black graphic artist, past and current injustices of African Americans – men, in particular – continue to intercede.

Patricia Silver & Rhonnie Washington
Rhonnie Washington carries in his expressive array of countenances a lifetime of Clive’s ups and downs, with his ability in the same facial expressions to juxtaposition one moment’s joy of delighting his wheel-chair-bound mom with the next of being at the edge of a meltdown as the two thunder oft-repeated insults at each other.  His Clive retreats to the bottle of Jack Daniels when his life’s troubles and pressures get too much, but his Clive also visibly embodies a driving, inner resolution to fight creeping self-blame and depression.  When the anger of injustices that he has largely let flow onto comic drawings finally erupt, his fiery brand lets loose all that Clive has largely held inside for many years.

Rhonnie Washington & Douglas B. Giorgis
The wars within his own head are played out by the appearances of the hero Scapegoat (Drew Reginald Watkins) and the anti-hero, Noon Day Demon (Douglas B. Giorgis).  While posing in save-the-world, strong-arm stances in front of comic-book frames (part of Andy Falkner’s projection design) Scapegoat prods and pleas with Clive to keep his comic-book self alive and to continue fighting racial injustice through Scapegoat’s heroics.  But jumping in to counter with his overly loud, sandpaper voice is the black-clad Noon Day, pushing Clive with bombastic bounces all around the room to listen to his own dark and doubting side. “What are you waiting for?  It would be so quick and easy,” he snarls with gritted grin as a shaky Clive holds a gun to his head.  Each of the comic book characters come to life often on the verge of being bizarre and too ridiculous, but each pulls back just in time to let Clive’s inner war play itself out in a manner that is both funny and powerful.

The good guy/bad guy pairing of the two actors is mirrored in the two actors’ individual depictions of the shooting victim, Dwayne (Mr. Watkins) and the enraged, trigger-happy cop, Marty (Mr. Giorgis).  The latter is called upon by the playwright’s script to show another side of a sorrowful Marty (now charged with deadly assault) and to test our and Clive’s capability of showing some empathy for the cop’s situation.  His attempt at some redemption/understanding through the created frames of Clive lead to a resurrection of sorts that is a somewhat strange and not totally effective strand of the overall story.

Cathleen Ridley & Rhonnie Washington
Rounding out the cast of five (all who play multiple roles except for Mr. Washington as Clive) are Cathleen Riddley as Clive’s combined ex-wife and current agent, Lexy, and Patricia Silver as his ancient-aged mother.  Both are strong and convincing in their primary and back-up roles; and neither easily backs down from pushing Clive to get what she wants from him, each knowing what she wants and usually how to press Clive’s buttons to get it. 

Rene Walker has created her costumes with some imaginative tongue-in-cheek when robing the comic book guys and the historical cameos.  At the same time, her designs for all the other characters leave appropriate impressions about their personalities.  Mikiko Uesugi’s overall simple and sparse scenic design enables the play’s various scenes to unfold quickly while Brittany Mellerson’s lit colors against the white back wall play into both a comic book’s coming to life as well as the shifts in mood in the story itself.  A big added bonus of the evening is the sound design by James Goode, with a fabulously effective soundtrack of bluesy jazz where the interplay of sax, drums, and piano provides an ongoing reflection of our African-American history.

As with many world premieres, there is probably some more script work and honing of story and thematic threads before its next outing; but in the meantime, William Bivins’ Scapegoat is an impacting, important inclusion in this year’s Playgound New Works Festival and one that is ninety-minutes well spent.

Rating: 3.5 E

Scapegoat continues through June 17, 2018 in production by Playground and in association with Lorraine Hansberry Theatre at Potrero Stage, 1695 18th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://playground-sf.org/ or at http://potrerostage.org.

Photo Credits: Mellophoto.com

Monday, May 21, 2018

"The Siegel"


The Siegel
Michael Mitnick
City Lights Theater Company

Luisa Sermol &  Ben Euphrat
“Do you think there is only person out there for us?” is a question Ethan is struggling to answer in his life.  When he shows up to ask Alice’s parents for her hand in marriage, he is sure that the answer is ‘yes’ and that she is the one.  The problem is that Ethan and Alice broke up two years prior and have not spoken since.  Further, Alice is now close to being engaged to Nelson. 

In Michael Mitnick’s 2017-premiering play, The Siegel, Ethan is not about to give up, setting up a possible love triangle that rivals those in the play’s namesake-of-sorts, Chekov’s The Seagull; but this modern version is packed with tons more laughs.  Now in a popcorn-paced, fun and funny, smartly designed and directed production at City Lights Theater Company, The Siegel is more Woody Allen than Chekov and a rowdy romp in the search for love where paths meet, collide, and eventually turn around corners unexpected. 

Please proceed to Talkin' Broadway for my full review: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj124.html.

Rating: 4 E

The Siegel continues through June 17, 2018 at City City Lights Theater Company, 529 South Second Street, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at https://cltc.org/ or by calling 408-295-4200 Monday – Friday, 1-5 p.m.

Photo Credit: Taylor Sanders

 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

"Jesus Christ Superstar"


Jesus Christ Superstar
Andrew Lloyd Webber (Music); Tim Rice (Lyrics)


Janelle Lasalle as Jesus, with Apostles
For a week, our smart phone and TV screens have been filled with the scenes of burning tires, hurling rocks, and flying bullets as bodies fall on the border of Gaza and Israel.  All day, those same small and mega screens have shocked us once more with a grieving mother’s agony as yet another school shooting has occurred.  And now, sitting in the Victoria Theatre on a Friday night, four screens suddenly emblazon with TV stations carrying pictures and reports of mob riots and of police lined in riot gear on the streets of Jerusalem ... only these modern-appearing scenes are of events occurring over two thousand years ago.

As the stage before us now erupts into a crowd of angry protestors being confronted by helmeted and armed police -- all captured live on the screens above from various angles by roving cameras -- the crowd suddenly parts and silences as a serene figure appears, giving healing touches and knowing looks of understanding to those on either side. 

Jesus has appeared, but this Jesus is not the one in the picture books of our childhood.  Jesus is a black woman.  In fact, in this visually eye-popping, brilliantly conceived, musically electrifying Jesus Christ Superstar production by Ray of Light Theatre, all twenty-two members of the stunningly talented cast are women of many hues and races.  A Sunday School story from the book of Matthew received in the 1970 concert version a bold retelling by a still-young Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics). The musical that in the ‘70s rolled, rocked, and rattled both those opposed and those enthralled now bursts onto the Ray of Light stage with an all-female cast that speaks to our times more than ever. 

In a moment of history where young women are stepping forth to be the leadership voices of  #metoo, Black Lives Matter, #NeverAgain, and Time’s Up, Ray of Light Theatre once again proves that this is the Bay Area company that puts on the musical stage what most other companies would never risk, probably not even consider.  Giving the female voice to the hero, the lover, the villain, the zealots, the government leaders, and even the angry mobs brings a new strength, relevance, and insight into this age-old story. We soon forget that we are looking at something from the past and instead peer into a new reality where young women are forcibly taking their place as the movers and shakers of our future’s history.

Incredible voices and inspired performances aside for the moment, a standing ovation must first go to the creative team behind the ROL production.  Eliza Leoni and Shane Ray as co-directors have launched Superstar into a whole new orbit from other productions I have seen over the past forty-plus years.  Time and again, the co-directors push boundaries to ensure the ancient story has immediate recognition and relevance to our times.  Scenes erupt with the spontaneity of a crowd angered to the point of no return or of the desperate homeless and disenfranchised who suddenly reach out for help to survive.  Other scenes such as Peter’s three-time denial to pursuing and persistent reporters, as the pitting of Jesus versus Judas in face-to-face confrontations, as the betrayal by Judas and Judas’ later suicide, or as the Las Vegas style reincarnation of Judas singing “Superstar” are all individually arresting in design, blocking, and impact.

Along with impressive directorial moves comes a lighting design by Christian Mejia that time and again illuminates the stage’s evocations, emotions, and events in ways that adds much meaning and muster to already powerful scenes.  The overall lighting is a show unto itself, with changes both subtle and sudden that grab attention without ever being distracting. All is captured in the Erector-Set, two-level scenic design by Kuo-Hao Lo where metal reigns supreme in the skeletal framework and in a chain-link fence that at times holds the angry, beating, wailing mob at bay.

Impressive too is the sound design Theodore Hulsker in scenes like Jesus’ lashings or in unseen but heard crowds of background rioters and clashing police.  The videos designed by Erik Scanlon and the live video coordination by Patrick Nims both make the four, televised screens pop with action that is as current as right now.  Maggie Whitaker’s costumes tell stories and provide insights in ways where no sung words are needed (often with sewn-in satire and irony galore) as in the high style dresses worn by the decision-makers of Jesus’ fate (Caiaphas, Annas, and Pilate) – one in red, one in white, one in blue. 

As a musical that began in 1970 as a concept album and was performed in the early years with full orchestra, a choir, a children’s choir, and soloists who simply stood when they sang their parts, Jesus Christ Superstar is first and foremost about the music itself, with no spoken words in the book.  As Music Director, Ben Prince understands that every note has a purpose in re-making this biblical story one for our times.  From Stephen Danska’s soul-grabbing electric guitar to the heart-throbbing bass of Travis Kindred, the alerts of Taylor Rankin’s drums, and the director’s own both mesmerizing and menacing keyboards (with Keyboard 2 alternating between Ken Brill and Dave Dobrusky), Ben Prince has ensured that Webber’s music more than does its own part in making this a story and an evening not to be forgotten soon.

Maita Ponce as Mary Magdalene & Janelle Lasalle as Jesus
The story is one most people know, whether or not they are believers in its veracity or significance.  Jesus is being pushed by followers to become a king and to take on the hated Romans.  One of his closest disciples, Judas, is getting more and more nervous that the foreign powers-to-be will reign havoc on the homeland Jews if Jesus does not quickly reject these zealots as well as the intimate relationship he seems to be developing with Mary Magdalene, rumored to be a prostitute.  In the meantime, the Jewish high priests, Caiaphas and Annas, are also becoming highly concerned about threats to their own power and position by what they see as mob control led by this upstart Jesus.  They are more than ready to find a way to stop him and intend to get the Governor of Judea, Pilate, to help them do so.  All they need is someone to tell them when and where to find Jesus alone, away from the fawning crowds, so they can put him under arrest.

Janelle Lasalle
As Jesus, Janelle Lasalle brings a voice and demeanor that can be comforting and healing as she tries to calms the apostles’ frantic inquiries in “What’s the Buzz?”  Her vocals and countenance can also be terrifying and full of fury as Jesus confronts the moneychangers, merchants, and finally the solicitous crowd of hangers-on in “The Temple,” with a piercing “There’s too little of me ... Don’t crowd me ... Heal yourselves!”  Ms. Lasalle is far from a god and totally human when in the arms of a comforting Mary Magdalene (the beautifully voiced Maita Ponce).  Jesus’ evident exhaustion, fear, and pain is gripping in scenes of torture and eventual death (again made all the more breath-taking and gut-wrenching by Christian Mejia’s lighting).  Overall, she brings to Jesus a capacity to love, to live, and to lead in ways exciting and unexpected.

Jocelyn Pickett
But Jesus Christ Superstar is at the heart less about Jesus and more about the betrayer, Judas, the one who is driven to save the Jews from a feared destruction Judas fears is bound to occur, given Jesus’ meteoric-rising popularity.  From her initial piercing cry that only climbs in apoplexy to a frightful, “Listen, Jesus, do you care for your race?” Jocelyn Pickett is a Judas who commands the stage and the story in every respect.  Time and again, her looks of suspicion, of accusation, of hurt, of anger, and of self-doubt are only matched and then excelled by a voice that tears one’s heart out in the pain, the fear, and the defeat heard in notes sung with absolute brilliance.

But even Judas can be almost funny in one of several other light-hearted scenes of an otherwise ardent and impassioned unfolding of ever-serious-and-sad events.  When Judas appears reincarnated on a stage and in the glitz and glitter of Las Vegas with three skimpily clad back-ups singing “Superstar,” Jocelyn Pickett -- without ever one ounce of vocal distortion -- screeches and finally screams her questions to Jesus (“Did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?”).

Speaking of glitz, glitter, and fun, Hayley Lovgren is hilarious with her own three back-ups in a “King Herod’s Song” where she looks more like a drag queen on a Castro stage than the King of Galilee who is tempting Jesus to perform one of the famed miracles.  Equally funny at times and also on the edge of scary at other times is the deep, dark-voiced Heather Orth as Caiaphas.  Her Head Priest more than once causes eruptions of titters in the audience with her cocktail-swizzling, her contemptuous “humphs,” and her tight jerks of the head as the Caiaphas considers how to rid Jerusalem of the Jesus curse. 

The encouraging taunts and snippily sung encouragements of the High Priest’s assistant, Annas (Christen Sottolano) are a wonderful pairing to Caiaphas’ haughty manners; and when the two are joined the all-in-white Pilate (Courtney Merrell), the three are all dripping with their fancy dressed piousness.  As Pilate, Ms. Merrell’s “Pilate’s Dream” is marked by a crystal-clear voice that is haunting in its prediction “And then I heard them mentioning my name, and leaving me the blame.”

Throughout the evening, the fast-paced and exacting choreography of Alex Rodriguez is energetically, flawlessly performed by the often stage-filling ensemble of apostles, rioters, merchants, or faithful followers.  As Simon Zealotes (Melinda Campero) cries out with a voice glorious in its sung admiration and persuasion to Jesus, “Christ, what more do you need to convince you that you’ve made it.”  At the same time, a constantly pressing, moving, shifting crowd presses in with choreography as powerful as their own sung, “Christ you know I love you ... Did you see I waved?” 

Time and again, the choreography – like all other aspects of this Ray of Light Theatre production -- captures the ecstasy, the urgency, the hopelessness, and ultimately the hopefulness of the historical moment being portrayed in the songs and scenes of Jesus Christ Superstar.  And all the while, one cannot help but be moved and motivated by this all-female cast that puts its own unique and important mark on a story we already knew. Through them, we walk away understanding that theirs is a story of the kind of courage, leadership, and sacrifice that young women (and men) are taking even now to the streets of a nation in need of a jolt out of its complacency.

Rating: 5 E, “MUST-SEE”

Jesus Christ Superstar continues through June 9, 2018 in production by Ray of Light Theatre at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco, through October 17, 2015.  Tickets are available online at http://www.victoriatheatre.org/index.php/box-office or http://rayoflighttheatre.com.

Photo Credit: Ray of Light Theatre



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

"An Entomologist's Love Story"


An Entomologist’s Love Story
Melissa Ross

Lucas Verbrugghe & Lori Prince
Blink, blink. ... Blink, Blink.

Blink/Pause. ... Blink/Pause.

Signals go out into the night, searching for a compatible mate -- for hot sex.  The climax could be even more ecstatic since the female may be one that kills the male as the deed is done.

Such is the life of a firefly.  Much the same happens to Praying Mantis males on the prowl.  One first-and-final fling and then it is heads over heels into his mate’s mouth.

Betty is one of Fordham University’s hottest tickets as an adjunct professor, interesting enough in describing and showing slides of bug sex that her students actually look up from their IPhones to become enthralled.  Her own online prowls for hook-ups via OKCupid and EHarmony are part of the constant chatter she directs at fellow Museum of Natural History entomologist, Jeff -- a friend for twenty years who once had a short sojourn as her bedmate and lover.  Her own cynical, almost vicious views of the men she finds online (and the fact she as a woman feels the necessity to act dumber than they in order to keep them interested) is not that much unlike the venom of the female insects she describes as they too devour their finds.  But she also shows evident delight in recounting her blow-by-blow (as in often below the belt) escapades to Jeff, all the time encouraging the much shier, more reserved workmate to do the same. 

And so sets up the search for love among insects and these two long-time, thirty-something pals and colleagues as the first scenes unfold in the furiously funny and edgy An Entomologist’s Love Story by Melissa Ross.  Currently in a first-class, visually stunning world premiere by San Francisco Playhouse, An Entomologist’s Love Story is a ninety-minute whizz under the watchful and creative eye of Giovanna Sardelli (who also directed the workshop when the piece-in-progress first appeared at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s 2014 New Works Festival).  The director has Jeff and Betty often flying around their shared laboratory/office on rolling chairs like insects in flight while sending out verbal stingers often meant to target the other’s hot buttons that they have discovered in microscopically examining and noting in memory notes each other’s foibles through the years.  Theirs is a friendship deep but one where there is still a question if those romps together in the past are really only of the past.  That question comes up early in Ms. Ross’s snappy, sharp, and sexy script -- one that lingers tauntingly in the air as the play quickly moves through its number of delightful, laugh-inducing scenes.

Lori Prince
Lori Prince in a constant whir of movement as Betty, rarely able to stay perched in any one position long without jerking herself with renewed vigor to focus on her prey (usually Jeff).  Her sudden flight is often accompanied by her spewing forth a new flurry of babble – a mixture of confessions, accusations, and insinuations that are sometimes made with tongue-in-cheek and at other times with the intention to sting enough to hurt. 

Betty is clearly the star of her a story all about her, and she insists that Jeff listen and be a part of her life’s unfolding as it is happening (while still being coy if he starts probing too much about things she had rather not admit – like a possible new boyfriend).  But she also wants to know all the details of Jeff’s life and better yet, to shape/alter them to her satisfaction when they do not meet her approval – like his meeting and seeing a potential new girlfriend.  Lori Prince is perfectly cast as the high-flung, ego-centered but highly insecure Betty, finding a myriad of ways to display all of Betty’s complicated sides as one who is thirty-five and still single, with eyes on the ticking time clock of life.

Lucas Verbrugghe
Much different in many ways but yet still able to be aroused by Betty into his own frantic frenzy of digs and denials is Jeff -- also thirty-five but often regressing to his late teens.  Lucas Verbrugghe is a Jeff who stumbles about making wonderfully awkward, out-of-place remarks when trying too hard to make good impressions while also moving in over-done ways like a boy whose hormones are still in full rage and control.  He is by nature quiet and shy but can burst into bold and boisterous at any moment in ways that look like he has just broken through his latest self-spun cocoon.  When with Betty, the two of them are often anything but mid-thirties in their maturity, ready to play any minute “hipster or homeless” while sitting on a bench in front of the museum.  Together, too, they sometimes still send to the other a signal of possible attraction -- leaving each to wonder if it is a signal of compatibility or if it is a fatal warning.

Lucas Verbrugghe & Jessica Lynn Carroll
Bugs lead each to discover a total stranger who may or may not be on the right wavelength for a possible match.  Bed bugs bring Jeff and Lindsay together, she being the opposite of Betty in almost every dimension.  Jessica Lynn Carroll brings a high, giggling voice and a bubbling personality that leads Betty to greet her with, “Oh God, you’re like a living, breathing Disney princess.” 

Lori Prince & Will Springhorn Jr
After landing together by chance on a Central Park bench, Andy recognizes Betty as the lady who gives the bug lectures.  (He sits in on her classes in between his work hours as a part-time janitor at Fordham.)  As Andy, Will Springhorn Jr. is proud of who he is by profession and attracted immediately to this woman who reminds him of “that guy on Sixty Minutes” – i.e., Andy Rooney.  He has his own unique ways of moving in on a reluctant Betty (who argues to Jeff, “He’s a janitor ... I have 500 degrees”), but his self-arranged flowers arriving at the lab that look more like a jungle do begin to catch her attention – even though she does all she can to deny to herself and Jeff that is so.

Nina Ball and Jacqueline Scott have outdone themselves in creating the sets and properties for this Playhouse fun time.  Massive walls of shelves full of mounted and bottled insects rise on each side of the stage, with the turntable soon revealing an even more impressive back wall of framed specimens and over-sized models of bugs and insects.  Even the polished wood desks, specimen drawers, and work table of this Natural History Museum laboratory are stunning to behold -- all enhanced by Kurt Landisman’s lighting design and the projections of Theodore J.H. Hulsker.  A subtle buzzing noise can be heard in the midst of music in Mr. Hulsker’s sound design (almost leading one to swat at some imaginary fly-by).  Brooke Jennings completes this outstanding Creative Team, designing wardrobes that highlight the four differing and unique personalities fluttering about before us.

The signals continue to flicker on and off among these four would-be lovers, but nothing is certain in nature.  There is a lot of chance and randomness.  In the world of entomology, at some point the right signals hopefully connect.  In Melissa Ross’ An Entomologist’s Love Story, we wait and watch to see if the same is true in the complicated world of humans.  Her world premiere at San Francisco Playhouse should cause quite the buzz among theatregoers in the Bay Area who are looking for a stimulating, light-hearted, off-beat story of maybe-yes, maybe-no romance.

Rating: 4.5 E

An Entomologist’s Love Story continues through June 23, 2018 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, May 13, 2018

"All the Shah's Men"


All the Shah’s Men
Matthew Spangler


Ken Boswell, Christian Haines & Annamarie MacLeod
If one wanted to find out the origins of today’s deeply divided and dangerous issues between the U.S. and Iran, there is probably some semester-long, poli-sci course a local community college is offering on the subject or a number of detailed books that could be read, including a 2003 book by New York Times correspondent, Stephen Kinzer.  Or, there is the alternative of seeing all the incredible, quite unbelievable events unfold before one’s eyes as that same book, All the Shah’s Men, is translated into a mind-blowing, true tale of spies, subterfuge, and sabotage in Matthew Spangler’s play by the same name, now in world premiere by the Arabian Shakespeare Festival.  Vicki Rozell directs a production at the tiny Royce Gallery that has all the suspenseful intrigue, white-knuckled pace, and plethora of known and never-heard-of characters one might expect to find on a big screen, Hollywood production – all accomplished with a talented, multi-faceted cast of five in a space barely the size of a small living room.

There was actually a time in the early 1950s when Iranians and their democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, admired the U.S.  The press in the U.S. and around the world in return poured praise onto the Iranian leader (named Time’s 1951 “Person of the Year”) as he made a case at the United Nations against Great Britain’s attempt to block Iran’s nationalizing its own oil supply -- a treasure the British had developed to the point of pulling in 84% of the oil revenues, with only 16% going to a very poor Iran. 

While the world applauded the small country’s stand against the British Empire, the U.S. and its new conservative president, Dwight Eisenhower, were not about to stay neutral (except in the public eye). Instead, they decided to utilize the relatively new Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to partner with Britain’s covert agency, MI6, to create a coup d’état to overthrow the legitimate, Iranian government for one to be run by their hand-selected, General Zahedi, arrested by the British during WWII as a supporter of the German Nazis.  That move was to be a first step to make way for Mohammed Reza Shah eventually to take over Iran – a leader that the U.S. and Britain believed could be more in their control than Mossadegh and who would allow them jointly to control the oil supply.

Christian Haines & Farshad Farahat
It is the complicated, incredulous set of events occurring in just a matter of days in August 1953 that All the Shah’s Men lays out in a play that often feels like an hour-by-hour, even minute-by-minute accounting of the takeover.  After setting up a few major lead-up events in 1951 and ’52 (including the appearance of the legitimate Prime Minister before the U.N.), Matthew Spangler leads us through the plans and tactics of one spy – the grandson of Teddy Roosevelt named Kermit – ones that often sound as if coming from DC Action comic book.  Events recounted on the stage seem time and again to be too crazy to be true but have been included by the playwright as gleaned from the history books: Roosevelt meeting under a blanket in a taxi with the Shah; Eisenhower and the BBC including certain, publicized phrases on air in order to persuade the Shah to go along with the coup; code names like “Operation Boot” and “Operation Ajax” (the latter purposely named after the toilet cleanser).

Christian Haines as Kermit Roosevelt is eerily an everyday looking-and-acting person one might meet on the street and never even notice or to talk at a party and soon forget.  He likes his Vodka; he plays Cribbage to win; and he likes listening to “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” from Guys and Dolls.  But as a CIA operative in an adolescent spy agency still making up its own rules, Mr. Haines’ Kermit (code name Jim, undercover as a Canadian oil man) shows the capacity to transform into a diabolically intense, near maniac, willing to throw large amounts of cash to buy rioting crowds to go to the streets to bomb stores and mosques in order to set up the kind of chaos for a quick changeover of government. 

William J. Brown III & Christian Haynes
Mr. Haines never allows his Kermit to flinch at the idea that what he is doing is unethical, anti-democratic, and totally un-American.  His logic becomes the same that will be used time and again in Central America and the Asia Pacific in the years to come: Stop the Soviets and Communism at all cost -- even in this case when the threat is one he and the CIA mostly make us and then actually start to believe.  Christian Haines is superb to the point of sending shudders down one’s spine as he orchestrates chaos -- sometimes with cool and collective smoothness as he advocates in straight-face “build democracy through a coup” and sometimes with eyes glazed with dire determination as he angrily spits out lies that he wants put in the money-hungry press as truth.

The other four members of the cast each play multiple, often extremely varied parts in order to populate the story with its many players – most based on real-life people.  Among other roles, William J. Brown III is Kermit’s State Department contact and sometimes partner, Roger, who vacillates widely in his reactions to what Kermit is planning.  While he has the look of disgusted shock when he says, “This whole thing is wrong,” his Roger is also one who can become almost like a kid in his ecstatic excitement in a “we did it” state of joy when the coup appears to succeed.

Ken Boswell is Robin Cochran, a fictional British imperialist and MI6 agent who has no love for the Iranians, and is Walter Smith, a real CIA agent who implants in Roosevelt’s mind the idea of using “stop Communism in its tracks” as the reasoning for the coup.  Mr. Boswell is also Loy Henderson, Ambassador to Iran during the early 1950s, who with gentle and trusting voice and empathetic eyes both makes false promises and declares outright lies to the legitimate ruler of Iran, who believes in their long-term friendship.

Annamarie MacLeod is Anne Lambton, a MI6 operative, who often serves as the stern-faced, take-no-prisoners narrator of the story.  She is also a very social, well-dressed Canadian diplomat -- a fictional Kate Bentley -- who works out of the Turkish embassy (since Canada does not have its own); who clearly has eyes on the Canadian oil guy, Jim (code name for Kermit Roosevelt); and who has a secret of her own that will add a further twist of mystery and intrigue to this story.

Fashad Farahat & Ken Boswell
The evening’s starring award, however, must go to Farshad Farahat who takes on the most diverse set of roles of all.  As the aging and ailing legitimate ruler, Mohammed Mossadegh, Mr. Farahat is bent over, shaking slightly, and holding onto a cane that is the difference between his barely standing and his collapsing.  His Prime Minister Mossadegh speaks with a quietly spoken passion but one full of fire backed by facts that could surely have swayed a listening, world audience. 

As Mustapha (code name, Bosco, as in the chocolate milk mix), Mr. Farahat is the proud, bold, and steely eyed right-hand assistant of Kermit Roosevelt – the Iranian insider who uses the ready made stacks of CIA cash to produce mobs full of instant anger and destruction and to buy the press with any story manufactured.  He can look Kermit in the eye and tell him in no uncertain terms just why he is helping him with a reason that has implications to this day.  Farshad Farahat is equally impressive as the historically real players, the society boy Shah (who rather likes his code name, Boy Scout) and the black-cloaked, dripping-in-evil, General Zahedi.

The number of characters involved, the number of often surreal events and turns-of-events, and the many ongoing implications evident to our present day situation could easily make this less-than-two-hour play overwhelming and confusing.  But such is not the case for the script created by Matthew Spangler and as directed by Vickie Rozell.  There are a few extremely short scenes among the twenty-plus that probably could be edited out of existence without losing much; but that is to be expected in a world premiere.  Overall, this fine production of All the Shah’s Men by the Arabian Shakespeare Festival is an A+ first-outing and one that hopefully will have legs for further productions – including those for students in high schools and colleges studying how recent events of their grandparents’ life times have shaped the dilemmas that they are inheriting to solve in the future.

Rating: 4 E

All the Shah’s Men continues through May 20, 2018 by the Arabian Shakespeare Festival at the Royce Gallery, 2901 Mariposa Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at www.arabianshakes.org or by calling 408-499-0017.

Photo Credits: Gregg Le Blanc


Friday, May 11, 2018

"What the Constitution Means to Me"


What the Constitution Means to Me
Heidi Schreck

Heidi Schreck
At the age of fifteen, Heidi Schreck remembers “in addition to being terrifically turned on,” to also being enthralled by “witch trials, theatre, and Patrick Swayze.”  As then a high school sophomore in Weeatache, Washington, young Heidi traveled in a circuit around the U.S. to the hallowed walls of American Legion halls in order to compete in oratory contests where she entered debates on the American Constitution – winning enough money to put herself through college.  

That fascination with the Constitution and the love of a good argument under pressure evidently never went away as she became a playwright, actor, and screenwriter.  So much is the case that she premiered in 2017 at Clubbed Thumb’s off-Broadway festival, Summerworks, a two-week run of a play about those Constitutional debates, throwing in a parallel history of the last three generations of the women in her family and how her and their lives reflect the importance of certain of the Constitution’s Amendments.  Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents Heidi Schreck and her What the Constitution Means to Me in its West Coast premiere, a work she claims up front “is not a play,” warning the audience, “I’m not sure what will happen now.”

As soon as Heidi Schreck walks into a replicated small-town, American Legion hall decked with the portraits of decorated service vets (all men, all white) – set designed by Rachel Hauck – her smiling, easy-going, informal personality lights up the entire stage.  But there is an edge and intensity immediately noticeable as her pace quickens and voice volume rises.  It soon becomes clear as she delves into her immense reserve of a lay person’s knowledge about our Constitution and its history that the passion she carries for its contents and their implications on her life is deep and felt to the core of her being.

Picking back up on her teen fascination of the Salem witch trials, Ms. Schreck explains that the metaphor she likes to use for how she sees the Constitution – having such a central metaphor was one of the Legion’s contest requirements – is that of a ‘crucible.”  For her, the honored document is like a “witch’s caldron,” “a collective act of visualizations,” or “spells.” 

Danny Wolohan
This all comes out as she reenacts one of the pressured speeches she once gave at the age of fifteen, a seven-minute prepared oration followed by extemporaneously speaking on one assigned amendment.  While a stern-voiced, never-flinching veteran is on stage to be her strict time-keeper (played by the performer’s real-life friend and fellow actor, Danny Wolohan), we soon begin to see that the time limits will not restrain this eager bulldog from barreling through all the details she intends to relay to us about her views.  In addition, she liberally takes us on side trips into her own upbringing and the lives and histories of the prior three generations of her family.

Heidi, the fifteen year old, focuses in her speech on the 9th Amendment, one added in 1791 because the Founding Fathers realized, according to our informed speaker, that they could not include in this defining document all the specific rights that Americans should be allowed to have.  Thus, they reserved those unnamed rights, including those not even imaginable at that time, through this addition. 

The excitement of both the 15-year-old Heidi and her now-adult self becomes ever more acute as she relates the importance of this particular amendment to long-later Supreme Court decisions, such as Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) and Roe v. Wade (1973), whereby women gained the rights of contraception and abortion based on the right of privacy -- a right later justices decided the 9th Amendment protects.  (Ms. Schreck’s side bar of what may have behind five of the nine 1965 justices’ decisions to allow birth control is an eye-brow-raising piece of historical gossip that may be the one sure thing everyone in the audience carries away from the evening’s lecture-like play.)

As Heidi proceeds through her somewhat-timed speech and moves into ‘extemporaneously’ talking about the 14th Amendment and its five clauses, more and more stories about the difficult history of her own family’s women spill out -- women who were often abused and/or witnessed abuse.  These difficult episodes are peppered into her explanations of the Amendment’s meanings and implications, with the clear conclusion by our playwright that “violence against women has been baked in historically” – not only in world history and our country’s history, but in her own family as one microcosm of that shameful heritage.

The side steps the playwright frequently takes have mixed-effect results in keeping some sense of focus and in building to some overall conclusions and learning from the evening.  Stories about her favorite sock monkey and her inherited way of crying in bent-over heaves are cute and funny but add little to ‘what the constitution means to me.’  The same is true when she turns over the podium to Danny, who goes from a stone-faced, staring blankly vet/speech judge to the actor himself telling about a childhood memory with his father – a story moving but totally unrelated to the evening’s focus.

Anaya Matthews
A decision by Heidi Shreck to bring a third person to the stage is much more relevant to both the topic, its current timeliness, and to the original, 15-year-old whom she was when giving her speeches.  A local, superstar, high school girl joins the playwright/performer in order to debate her on the question, “Should we abolish the Constitution of the U.S?”  St. Mary’s College High School sophomore, Anaya Matthews, is definitely trained and accomplished in the art of formal debating.  Her electric charisma on stage, her impressive knowledge of the Constitution, and her readied willingness to take impassioned stands making firm arguments against those of Heidi Schreck give us a glimpse of what the actual 15-year-old Heidi may have in fact looked like.  (Wisdom Kunitz of James Logan High School alternates this role with Ms. Matthews.)

Unfortunately, the way the two end their joint time on stage and thus the entire evening’s performance turns out to be frankly silly, totally off subject, and an energy deflator.  Evidently there are a variety of ways the playwright and her invited guest may choose on the spot to end the ninety-minute non-play.  The opening night’s choice certainly is one I would suggest tossing in the future.

Heidi Schrek and her director, Oliver Butler, have chosen a unique way to open discussion about our Constitution, its history of amendments, and their impacts on our current rights.  There is definitely an underlying warning that further amendments or new interpretations of present amendments by an evolving-to-the-right Court may undermine rights we now have – especially those of women.  However, some of their decisions of how the evening is structured and what has been included tangential to the core conversation in the end weaken, in my opinion, the potential and lasting impact as well as the probability of follow-up conversations by audience members.

Rating: 3 E

What the Constitution Means to Me continues through June 17, 2018 at the Peet’s Theatre of Berkeley Repertory 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 Alessandra Mello/Berkeley Repertory Theatre


Thursday, May 10, 2018

"Me and My Girl"


Me and My Girl
Noel Gray (Music); Douglas Furber & L. Arthur Rose (Book & Lyrics)
Stephen Fry (Book Revisions); Mike Ockrent (Further Book Contributions)


Melissa WolkKlain & Keith Pinto
Ring the sirens; clang the bells; light the neon marquee; turn on the sky-roving spotlights.  Do whatever necessary to tell the San Francisco Bay Area to head to the Gateway Theatre to revel in the not-to-be-missed Me and My Girl, maybe the best show 42nd Street Moon has done in years!  At the first harmoniously alive bars of “A Weekend at Hareford” from a stage-filling ensemble of faces lit up in peaked expressions, audience toes begin tapping; initial smiles turn into huge, permanent grins; and the evening’s almost non-stop laughs begin. 

The music of Noel Gray and the lyrics of Douglas Furber & L. Arthur Rose have made this 1937 musical an audience favorite since it debuted in London; and even though it took one year short of fifty to make it to Broadway, once there, it remained three years.  At 42nd Street Moon, every number of Me and My Girl seems to better than the one previous, with the stellar voices truly outstanding to a person.  By the end of the show, so many songs are still in one’s head, it is actually difficult to pick which one to hum upon exiting – with a big grin still plastered across the face! 

The hoity-toity, aristocratic Hareford family is scouring London of the 1930s, seeking its 14th Earl -- the 13th having wed a girl from a neighborhood no one else in the family would ever dare step foot.  News arrives that a son of the late Earl has been found -- from of all places (gasp), the lowly Lambeth section of London. 

While the rest of the family is aghast, Lady Jacqueline Carstone (Elise Youssef) has determined, “If our new Lord Hareford is going to get the money, then I am going to get the new Lord Hareford.”  That means breaking off her engagement with the ever-so finicky and proper Gerald Bolingbroke (Daniel Thomas).  The two sing “Thinking of No-One But Me” in a number where Gerald’s knockout tenor wonders, “What is going to happen to me?” while Jacquie uses not only her personality-plus vocals but also her huge eyes and eyelashes to let it be known, “Just look at me and you’ll see me on top of the tree, thinking nothing of no one but me.”  Their humorous but beautifully delivered song kicks off a long line of audience-approved hit after hit, with both these actors getting further chances to draw much laughter as the plot thickens and their own destinies become uncertain.

The Cast of Me and My Girl
This family of stuffy sorts in full panic wants to make sure no one not born of their bluest of blood heads their dynasty; and so they turn to their loyal solicitor, Herbert Parchester, for help.  With lips puckered proudly and a tongue that literally flows from his mouth as he speaks, Michael Barrett Austin as Parchester does little to give them confidence that he can actually help as he leads the gathered clan in a hopping, skipping, and jumping dance line as he sings in a wonderfully funny and exacting British accent, “Say a little and think a little and eat a little and drink a little ... for the family solicitor!”  (Gilbert and Sullivan, are you listening to these lyrics?)  Parchester is just one of many of the absolutely funny and endearing stock characters Stephen Fry created in his original book, and Mr. Austin brings the fun and flair that makes Parchester a solicitor to be remembered a long time.

  As the head butler Heathersett (and later as a beat bobby on the street), Colin Thomson draws huge laughs, especially as Heathersett leads the entire servant staff to imitate the aristocrats they serve in “The English Gentleman.”  Never speaking a word but funnier by the minute is Sir Jasper Tring (Scott Hayes) whose horn for hearing becomes a running source for merriment and whose pantomimed gestures are comically terrific and leaning a little on the lewd side.
The "Hareford Staff" of Me and My Girl
And such is true for other, equally delicious support roles in this cast.

Millisa Carey sings with a matronly voice and a slight warble that is perfectly tuned for the family’s grand Duchess, leading a library full of ancestral statues that come to dancing/singing life in “Song of Hareford.”  Along with Sir John – a pompous but lovable Michael Patrick Gaffney who has a love for a drink or three -- the Duchess is to decide if the newly found Earl can acquire enough gentlemanly manners in order to meet the family standard.

Keith Pinto
The missing Earl arrives clad in plaid, with big hand shakes, and sporting a cockney accent – all of which send the family into shock and tut-tut titters. Keith Pinto is a Bill Snibson whose clowning falls, faces, and foul-ups would do a master like Bill Irwin proud; whose dancing in tap, soft-shoe, and show style would cause Gene Kelley to take notice; and whose singing voice is a blast from the past that Gershwin or Porter would admire.  Bill is at first is not at all sure he wants to be an almighty Earl; but when he dons ermine-collared red robes with matching coronet hanging cock-eyed on his head, he walks around like he is getting a little used to the idea.

However, there is the little matter of Sally Smith (Melissa WolfKlain), the neighborhood sweetheart that he intends to marry and that the Duchess et al are determined he will not.  From their first, Vaudeville-style number, “Me and My Girl,” where they fast and slow tap in mimic of the other while also singing in voices that alert us that they are for real as the show’s stars, there is no doubt but Bill and Sally are meant for each other.  Whenever Mr. Pinto and Ms. WolfKlain are on stage together (as in “Hold My Hand”), there is an electric spark of attraction between them that is palatable while at the same time, they have the combined comic timing and mastery that could make them headliners in a 1930s comedy movie. 

But it is the lark-like voice of Melissa Wolfkain’s Sally that time and again wows the audience with a clarity of tone and a charisma of style that cannot help but make smiles universally appear in the audience.  Like Keith Pinto, her Sally knows how to get laughs galore.  Her Sally also has the integrity to win points of genuine admiration from the likes of Sir John and Parchester as she “Takes It on the Chin” to do what’s best for Bill and his potential ascension into earldom.

Mindy Cooper directs this fabulous cast with a liberal dose of milking every scene for its full comic potential while making sure the underlying love story never gets too over-shadowed to be forgotten.  So many little touches like a Bill bowlegged from his first fox hunt to a armored knight who suddenly comes to life make for an overall gigantic set of directed effects that keep the audience in stitches.  The choreography, also designed by Mindy Cooper, is humorously exaggerated in just the right ways while impressive in its many styles of the 1930s era. “The Lambeth Walk” is a near showstopper, as leg claps, foot snaps, and side steps illustrate a dance that took England by storm when introduced in the show’s ’37 premiere.

The wigs of Lexie Lazear and the costumes of Liz Martin are a showcase of the entire gamut of social classes of 1930s London, and many are designed fully to be laugh-getters in themselves.  David Lam’s lighting draws our attention to just the right spots for a song’s moment of emotional climax or to a line-up of tap-dancing ancestors.  Brian Watson’s design employs clever, fast-assembled scenes that the play’s characters often bring on and off as part of their comic entrances and exits.  Finally, Dave Dubrusky once again reigns supreme as the Moon’s music director, with his big band of three often sounding like an orchestra of ten (with Nick Di Scala on reeds and Max Judelson on bass joining Mr. Dubrusky on piano).

By the time the jubilant cast sings the finale with voices bigger than ever, “And we’ll have love, laughter, be happy ever after, me and my girl,” there is not doubt left but that 42nd Street Moon has a hit on its hands in reviving this 1980s updated version of the 1937 Me and My Girl.  The only thing unhappy about this show is if every seat in the intimate Gateway Theatre is not full for the rest of its run.

Rating: 5 E, “MUST-SEE”

Me and My Girl continues through May 20, 2018 at 42nd Street Moon’s Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at http://www.42ndstmoon.org or by calling the box office at 415-255-8207.

Photos by Ben Krantz Studio