Monday, March 26, 2018

"The Effect"


The Effect
Lucy Prebble

Joe Estlack & Ayelet Firstenberg
A few too many drinks leads to a wild and sensuous night in bed together leads to follow-up dates and eventually leads to a wedding, children, and celebration of a fiftieth anniversary.  While not the way every couple begins their life together, who among us has not heard of such from someone we know?  Was the love real if it began in a drunken binge?  Would it have been real if it began while high on pot?  How about if the to-be couple fell in love while on a four-week drug trial in which the substance being reviewed under scientific scrutiny as a possible deterrent to depression also caused its recipients to fall madly (pun not intended) in love with someone?  Is that love real?  Can it possibly last once the trial period is over?  What is love anyway and how real is it ever?  Is it all a manipulation of chemical reactions in our mind?  Are the ‘deeply felt’ reactions in the rest of our body below the head to be trusted at all when hearts race, knees buckle, hands sweat?

Lucy Prebble explores some of these questions about love as well as many more about the ethics and practices of a big pharmacological company’s drug trials in her 2016 play, The Effect.  In a immaculately polished and mostly bare setting dominated by monitor screens full of scrolling data – all very Fortune-500, pharma-corporate-looking and created by Nina Ball -- San Francisco Playhouse transforms its stage into a highly credible test lab for a drug trial.  Complete with the latest in modern, somewhat surreal lighting bright and blinking by Kurt Landisman and a sound design that mixes metallic like chimes and tones one might associate with science and with science fiction (created by Theodore J.H. Hulsker), Director Bill English ensures with his microscopic attention to emotional details that we focus foremost on the late-twenties man and woman before us anxious to earn $2500. 

Joe Estlack, Susi Damilano & Ayelet Firstenberg
Ready to subject themselves to a month’s hibernation sans cell phones and punctuated by pill-taking and ongoing examinations by the lab’s doctor, the two leave all trappings of their normal day-to-day life and don loose-fitting, silver outfits with netted openings here and there (designed by Brooke Jennings) – all before the first countdown.  5-4-3-2-1; open mouth; insert pills; drink water; open mouth as flashlight probes to see pills were indeed swallowed.  And then wait a few hours or a couple of days and see what happens.  Elevated moods, increased anger, a little weight loss?  How about after a couple more doses of increasingly potent dosage and then feeling like “bursting, like there is weather inside of me?”  How about hair starting to come out?  Better yet, how about increased infatuation and a mounting drive actually to mount that guy/gal over there who is also in the test?

Ayelet Firstenberg and Joe Estlack are for different reasons brilliant in their depictions of the drug-trial participants, Connie Hall and Tristan Frey.  Ms. Firtstenberg takes an initial serious, somewhat reserved approach in revealing who Connie is.  We see her as just wanting to get on with the testing procedures, follow the rules, and earn her money to be used for further studies as a graduate student in psychology – with this experience giving her a chance to do some extra learning on the side for her future career. 

Joe Estlack & Ayelet Firstenberg
On the other hand, Mr. Estack’s Tristan– a guy who makes it a sideline career doing such trials as this to earn extra bucks for travel and play – has reckless, adventurous, and ready-to-flirt-at-a-moment’s-notice written all over him.  As standoffish and sophisticated as Connie is, he is quite the opposite with suggestive and smirk-delivered remarks like “Think I’ll go drain my snake” as he heads to the restroom.  Tristan moves around in Romper Room moves like an over-grown kid.  He eyes Connie from the get-go as a potential romp while still being just enough charming not to appear too leacherous.   Connie on the outside is not at all interested, and yet those wondering eyes that meet Tristan’s and that slight blush that suddenly appears in response to one of his teen-sounding come-ons are signs enough not to make her later, heads-over-heels falling in love with him seem too out of the blue.

The question of how real the love growing between them looms larger and larger for especially Connie (but hardly, if at all, for Tristan, of course). However, there are not enough doubts to preclude their beginning to sneak into hidden chambers to see each other and even to find the hallway route to end up in bed together.  In one of Director English’s most inspired sequences that is enhanced by Mr. Landisman’s lighting genius, one night’s bedtime adventure is hilariously told through a series of seconds-lasting flashes of a dozen or so poses and positions -- on, off, and high above the sheets – with clothes coming and going between the two-second blackouts with incredible alacrity.

Joe Estlack & Susi Damilano
But as the trials proceed, more effects of the drugs beyond just increased sex drive and puppy-love-on-steroids occur.  And as they do, the doctors involved enter more and more into the picture with their own backstories, entanglements, and moral dilemmas (or not).  Susi Damilano is stunningly powerful – as she often is on the SF Playhouse Stage – as Dr. Lorna James, a psychotherapist brought in by the drug company Raushen to run the day-to-day operations of the tests.  She is business-only in the beginning days, asking personal and probing questions with hardly any facial or vocal expression.  However, as the effects increase, her own issues mount – both those current and those from the recalled past.  Ms. Damilano’s expressions of doubts about the trial’s efficacy and ethics, her crossing professional boundaries as she identifies more and more with Connie as her own younger self, and her own emotional breakdown when the unexpected shit hits the fan in the trials – all and more are enacted in her Connie in ways only an actress as talented and accomplished as she could perform.

Susi Damilano & Robert Parsons
Rounding out the ensemble is Robert Parsons as the Dr. Toby Sealey, the lab’s manager of these tests and of the visiting Dr. James.  There is something not to be trusted in him from the first time he appears as he seems just too caught up in proving this new drug works, no matter what the reactions are of those testing it.  He is the scientist who is clearly the well-paid puppet of the drug company, noting at one point, “There are no such things as side effects but only effects we cannot sell.”  A past association with Lorna James looms ever large in their present collaboration, and its lingering and lasting effects on both doctors become more current as those so-called drug trial effects get more and more serious.

As the love and attraction webs between these two couples get increasingly complicated with more and more troubling questions rising as to how strong the ties really are, things happen in Lucy Prebble’s script that in reflection, if not in the moment, seem highly unlikely – even for an industry that has as many critics as does big drug companies.  It would be easy to dismiss some of the critical components of the story as so unlikely as to discard the entire tale as too fantastical to accept.  However, under the direction of Bill English and with the cast that he has assembled, the questions of love’s true nature and its likely or possible origins and lasting effects still prove viable and intriguing.  And due again to his direction and the wonderful energy and magnetism of attraction between Ayelet Firstenberg and Joe Estlack, the love story of Connie and Tristan is fun, furious, and fulfilling – no matter how much or not it is based in likely reality.

Rating: 4.5 E

The Effect continues through April 28, 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.

Friday, March 23, 2018

"Heisenberg"


Heisenberg
Simon Stephens

James Carpenter & Sarah Grace Wilson
“If you watch something close enough, you never knew where it’s going or how fast you’re getting there.”

That observation made by one of the two principles in Simon Stephens’ 2015 play, Heisenberg, describes the inability to predict something, even and perhaps especially if one closely observes it – a phenomenon emanating from physicist Werner Heisenberg’s 1927 Uncertainty Principle.  In Mr. Stephens’ May/December, romantic comedy, the more each of the two people who meet on a train station bench get to know each other (after the younger woman kisses out of the blue the older man on the neck), the more they each seem to know little truth about the other but also the more their mutual attraction seems to grow.  At the same time, the outcome becomes less clear where the relationship will go next; although for us as audience, there is little doubt what the final outcome will likely be. 

Sarah Grace Wilson & James Carpenter
Under the perfectly timed, restrained direction of Hal Brooks and with two actors who are so deliciously different in dozens of respects but who are spot-on similar in their intensity of character portrayal, American Conservatory Theatre’s current production of Simon Stephens’ Heisenberg should on its way to be as big an audience hit in San Francisco as it was in New York and in London.  Georgie Burns is a forty-two-year-old woman who is a compulsive chatterer, with words (often four-letter ones) flying out of her mouth almost as fast and furious as her hands and eyes are constantly darting in all directions.  Seventy-five-year-old Alex Priest, on the other hand, often receives her constant verbal bombardment hardly moving a muscle and certainly not saying more than an occasional word or short phrase.  In their first meeting, almost everything she claims about herself soon comes out as mere fabrication, and the main thing he learns from her that is for sure true is “I love making things up.”  But when she shows up a few days later (again, totally out of the blue) in his butcher shop, something starts to click within Alex that this wild woman who will not shut up may at least be worth his cracking an ever-so slight smirk that is almost a smile denoting his liking for her.

Sarah Grace Wilson
Sarah Grace Wilson is hilarious as Georgie as she keeps Alex (and us) guessing if and when she is ever telling the truth about herself, her background, or even her feelings – feelings that are constantly flaring and expressed in extreme measures.  Her multi-pronged, persistent pursuit of this man thirty-years her senior is usually suspicious in true motive yet always leaving open the possibility that it is actually genuine.  Even when her motives that involve a son of nineteen who has moved from London to New Jersey become clearer – a move largely to escape a mother he does not ever want to see again – there is still left doubt if the current emotions Ms. Wilson’s Georgie is showing are real or not.  And yet, how can we, like Alex himself, not be attracted to Georgie’s energy, her spontaneity, and if nothing else, her ability to spin a good yarn.

James Carpenter
Bay Area and A.C.T. veteran actor, James Carpenter, turns out to be the perfect choice to play Alex Priest.  So much can be conveyed in that face marked with a life’s worth of rich experiences even with just one cheek’s twitch, one raised eyebrow, or one side of one lip barely rising.  And when his Alex does speak, his oft-short responses to Georgie’s volume-size vomiting of words are gems that Mr. Carpenter says in just the right deadpan, matter-of-fact manner to contrast to Georgie’s fireworks. 

Together, this pair of actors seems to be having the time of their lives in roles where each gets to bring mystery as to next moves and surprise in decisions made and actions taken.  Together, they are also able to generate a highly sensual, almost animalistic, mutual attraction that is totally believable – as if both were in their twenties rather than in mid- and late-life.  But even those demonstrations of attraction are open for wondering how real they are as the twists and turns in their relationship proceed.

The focus on the two actors and their interactions is kept fiercely acute by a large stage that is Spartan.  But the high-polished, light-wood platform designed by Alexander V. Nichols has its own surprises as necessary elements of scenery (such as bed, table, or bench) rise from nowhere or are pieced together by the two actors in a kind of between-scene dance of wits and wills.  Mr. Nichols’ lighting and projections provide a curtained background that subtly changes in mood and feel to reflect the shifts occurring throughout this ninety-minute romantic adventure playing out before us.

Nothing is certain in the relationship of Georgie and Alex; yet Simon Stephens does seem to be trying to tell us to use different ways of seeing this developing relationship if we really want to understand what is going on.  As Alex says about music, “Music doesn’t exist in the notes; it exists in the spaces between the notes.”  In the spaces between what appears at any moment as real between Georgie and Alex lie the hints of what is true between them.  And for the audiences of A.C.T., there comes much fun in the guessing and the surety of what is really happening between these two of most unlikely lovers.

Rating: 5 E

Heisenberg continues through April 8, 2018 on the Geary Stage of American Conservatory Theatre, 405 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.act-sf.org/, in person at the box office Mon. – Fri. 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Sat. – Sun. 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., or by calling the box office at 415-749-2228.

Photos by Kevin Berne


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"The Wolves"



The Wolves
Sarah DeLappe

The Cast of The Wolves
I arrived really wanting to like this show.  Pre-publicity that I had read sounded intriguing and exciting as the show was described as nine teenage girls going about their pre-game, soccer warm-ups just talking about life in the way teen girls do everywhere.  I already knew that Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves is a slice-of-life type of play, so I was not expecting much plot, which is cool with me.  I also knew that this was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize nominee -- quite an accomplishment for a playwright’s first equity produced work – so I went in with high expectations, especially since I tend to be wowed by most productions at Marin Theatre Company.

What I was not prepared for was how extremely long the ninety-minute play was going to feel to me, how much I was to fight boredom midway through, or how gratuitous a late-play tragic event was going to feel as a ploy just to pull audience heartstrings for a character I could not even identify as to who she was.  I also was surprised how much guilt I was experiencing as a sixty-something man for not liking a show about teen girls.  I kept asking myself, “Is it just me?  Am I totally the wrong demographic for this play?”

Add caption
The Wolves takes place on a stage-filling, indoor, artificial field (authentically designed by Kristen Robinson) where the play opens with nine girls in a circle going through various standing, sitting, and lying-down stretches followed by some ball passing and light kicking as they warm-up for their upcoming soccer match.  As they get bodies, minds, and psyche prepped, they do what any group of teens would do.  They chatter and banter in two’s, three’s and all other combinations; and they do so all at the same time.  For anyone who has ever spent even a few minutes with a group of teens (boys or girls), the scene is realistic; the energy is typical teen-manic; and the passions swing like a wild roller-coaster ride in just the way they most always do when teens get together. 

But as a play, it begins to be more and more difficult to discern much from the many different conversations occurring.  Over and again, lines are totally lost because too many girls are talking over each other or because they are talking with their backs to the audience and simply cannot be heard clearly.  Things happen such as something really seen as funny or something that is a major eruption between two girls, but the key word that sets it all off is unfortunately too often lost in all the ongoing hubbub of the active circle (leaving me as an audience member exasperated and saying to myself, “Damn ... missed another one”).

Bits and pieces are picked up.  There’s joking about “her feminine product of choice” for a girl who’s worried her “pad” may have fallen out.  “Cambodia” somehow comes up in the far corner, leading to a back-and-forth about the khmer rouge, genocide, and rightful punishment.  A couple here is clearly gossiping about classmates; a girl over there is making playful jabs at a teammate that abruptly turns uglier; and that girl is trying to insert something into circle even though everyone is mostly just ignoring her.  But after a while, I want to ask, “So what?  Where is this leading?”

So I even tried several different approaches to appreciate the play.  I soon figured out listening for the full conversations between any two or three people was not working.  I kept losing lines or got diverted into another conversation that began to sound more interesting.  Then I decided to focus on particular girls to see if I could see patterns in character development.  But since the girls in the program are identified only by their jersey numbers and since they never call each other anything other than “dude,” “bitch,” “you f-cker,” or other such locker-room nomenclatures (which again seemed at the time quite realistic), I did not have much luck piecing together a back-story on any one of the nine girls.  Finally, I just stepped back to take in the gestalt and try to listen for the music of all the dialogue and the themes that might emerge.  That helped a bit, but that is also when my boredom began to take over.

While the physicality of the several pre-game warm-ups we watched was impressive (these actors really get major workouts in these ninety minutes), when there is a several-minute segment where all they do is parade back and forth across the stage doing leg-lifts, high-kicks, lifts-and-kicks, and finally scissor-steps, I was truly ready to nap. 

The pre-game warm-ups for the several games that the play represents continue with not a lot of note happening until a major tragic event occurs out of the blue.  There is a slow build up as to what actually happened.  Girls do what teens (and adults) do when bad news arrives as they try at first to slough it off (“I’m really OK”), as they go into confused states (“It’s so weird”), and as the reality with many tears finally hits.  But because we as audience do not really know (at least I did not) which girl we are really talking about and because this tragedy sequence plays on audience emotions to the max (with the appearance of a soccer mom, played by Liz Skiar, whose sobbing performance would make even a cynic’s eyes tear up), I found myself being half-angry (through my tears) that the playwright included this segment. I felt manipulated to be moved versus the occurrence happening as an important element of the story or to make an important point.

The nine young women who play with fierce enthusiasm the team members deserve high-fives and a big cheer for their excellent performances.  I wish I could have spent more time getting to know each of their characters individually because the glimpses I got were enough to show me that there was substance and an interesting story probably there.  Unfortunately, the script of Ms. DeLappe and the choice by Morgan Green as director for on-field warm-ups-on-steroids (that are in fact, very realistic) made that too difficult. 

So, looking back, I am truly sorry I did not like The Wolves very much.  I may be the only one who did not.  (Well, neither did my spouse, who is also male ... so there you go.)  Please take my review with the appropriate grain of salt.

Rating: 2.5 E

The Wolves continues through April 8, 2018 at Marin Theatre Company, , 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA.  Tickets are available online at http://www.marintheatre.org or by calling the box office Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne


Monday, March 19, 2018

"The Music Man"


The Music Man
Meredith Wilson (Book, Music & Lyrics)


As many times as I have personally seen the show, I experienced a week’s build-up of excitement to see Broadway by the Bay’s latest staging of the ever-popular tale of the huckster Hill, The Music Man.  I am happy to report that the Broadway by the Bay production has the all brassiness, the barbershop harmonies, and the unabashed mixture of high jinx and sentimental sappiness that audiences from coast to coast have loved for the past sixty-one years.  

For my full review, please proceed to Talkin' Broadwayhttps://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj118.html.

Rating: 4.5 E

The Music Man continues through April 1, 2018in production by Broadway by the By at the Fox Theatre, 2215 Broadway, Redwood City.  Tickets are available at https://broadwaybythebay.org.

Photo Credit: Broadway by the Bay

Sunday, March 18, 2018

"Cowboy Versus Samurai"


Cowboy Versus Samurai
Michael Golamco

Chuck Lacson
A delightfully entertaining, laugh-out-loud funny, and altogether sweet Cowboy Versus Samurai by Michael Golamco, is now receiving a staging at Pear Theatre.  Four twenty-somethings are all in search of their true identities; and their journeys’ bumpy routes are full of racial, personal, and relationship uncertainties and biases to be confronted with no bypasses ultimately allowed.  For us as an audience and fellow travelers, we are able to enjoy at their expense the trials and tribulations they so dramatically encounter while rooting from our darkened seats for happy endings in what we hope in the finale is in fact a romantic comedy -- and not a tragedy.  

For my full review, please proceed to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj117.html.

Rating: 3.5 E

Cowboy Versus Samurai continues through April 8, 2018 at Pear Theatre, 1110 LaAvenida, Mountain View.  Tickets are available at www.thepear.org or by calling 650-254-1148.

Photo by Michael Craig & Pear Theatre
  

Friday, March 16, 2018

"Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies"


Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies
Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm

Tre'Vonne Bell & Jesse Vaughn
Two, mid-teen guys chat about their aspirations and dreams:
- “So you don’t want to be a vet any more?”
- “No.”
- “What do you want to be?”
- “Alive.”

Even though “Laugh” signs light up to prompt us as an audience to take this as a joke, there is mostly silence as the conversation between the two boys, both African-American, sinks in.  One -- the son of a single mom holding down two jobs -- is Baltimore street-smart in looks and speech, proudly wearing his sparkling red Dorothies on this feet and his required hoodie over his head.  The other is the preppy (ok, actually nerdy), adopted son of upper middle-class white parents who lives in Achievement Heights and who calls his new friend’s shoes, “sneakers.” The former fears his new friend is too “white” and has taken on the mission to teach the latter “how to be black,” going so far as to compose a book of rules for him entitled “Being Black for Dummies.”

Custom Made Theatre presents the West Coast premiere of Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s edgy, funny, and timely play, Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies.  Under the adept, full-speed-ahead direction of Lisa Marie Rollins, the Custom production should come with a warning to fasten your seatbelt and be ready for a riotous ride that will send you colliding into widely held but rarely discussed stereotypes while also being bombarded continuously with various forms and uses of the ‘n-word.’  Funny throughout but often causing audience members discomfort knowing when and if to laugh, the play discloses and demonstrates hilarious ‘secrets’ about being a black teen in the big city.  Mr. Chisholm’s smart script also reveals one scary secret about being a black male teen in today’s America whose blatant truth cannot be easily ignored – even by an African-American youth going to an all-White prep school who uses the King’s English as he discusses his intellectual hero, Frederick Nietzsche.

Marquis meets Tru in a holding cell after being picked up by a tough-acting, black cop named Borzoi for ‘Trayvonning’ in a cemetery one night with two of his white classmates (that is, sprawling on the ground as if dead, imitating Trayvon Martin’s much-TV-aired picture).  This practice and the subsequent social media pictures is evidently a favorite pastime among him and his white friends (along with one-knee ‘Tebowing’ and flat-face-on-ground ‘planking’).  By the way, Marquis’ white friends in their prep-school ties and jackets of course got away, largely ignored by the cop who arrested him.

Jesse Franklin, Jessica Risco & Tre'Vonne Bell
Tru is in same cell as Marquis for “loitering” (enough said).  When Marquis’s white mom (a very blonde and hilariously ‘color-blind’ Jessica Risco) arrives, she quickly uses her social connections and ‘whiteness’ to get both boys released to her, excitedly convincing Tru to spend the night so that Marquis can finally have “a cultural friend.”  The boys begin to establish a friendship where ideas, clothes, and the required pushes and shoves are swapped and shared.  And, Marquis begins to learn ‘secrets’ about being black that he is not sure he wants or needs to learn but more and more feels compelled to do so.

Both Tre’Vonne Bell and Jesse Vaughn are nothing short of outstanding in their respective portrayals as Tru and Marquis.  Mr. Bell’s Tru employees a number of facial expressions and body poses to convey clearly his shocked disbelief and yet true fascination with this friend whom he deems black in skin color only.  Mr. Vaughn’s Marquis, on the other hand, is squeaky clean and naïve with a grin that lights up his entire personality and with a disbelieving, skeptical frown that cannot understand why this Tru thinks he is too white and not black enough.  Both boys are also just boys in their horsing around, talk about girls and getting it on with them, and their passionate and “I know I am right” stands as they have fun arguing.  And both share a connection that they cannot shed, no matter what – being a target of suspicion for just being black and male.

Rebecca Hodges, Ari Lagomarsino & Delaney Corbitt
Much of the play’s humor and also the playwright’s commentary on the majority society surrounding all African American kids come via the white classmates of Marquis at Achievement Heights Academy.  His buds, Fielder (Max Seijas) and Hunter (Peter Alexander), are ever-so-close to being caricatures of the cool guy concentrating on his hair and looks and the jock who is out to make it with one of the cheerleaders.  The girls carry telling names like Prairie (Delaney Corbitt), Meadow (Ari Lagomarsino), and Clementine (Rebecca Hodges) and are exaggerations of giddy, selfie-taking gals whose eyes are mostly on boys and on their own looks and rivalries.  Clementine does have the hots for Marquis (as does he for her), and her obvious naivite about him as an African American is both sweet and sad to watch.

Peter Alexander & Ari Lagomarsino
When Hunter (Peter Alexander) starts reading Tru’s instructional book on being black that Marquis has discarded, something inside him switches as he strives to take on all the black mannerisms, speech, and looks that Marquis largely refuses to consider.  Mr. Alexander gives an award-worthy performance that is difficult to watch while also eliciting much laughter.  His journey into his black self takes turns that unfortunately echo the underlying message of Mr. Chisholm’s play and the ‘secret’ about the young, black men he so much tries to emulate.

Camera projections by Sarah Phykitt are in themselves a shocking and symbolic reminder of the scrutiny that young black men face every day.  The scenic design of Celeste Martore is spartan but satisfactory for the story’s unfolding.  Maggie Whitaker’s costume design is a storyline of its own.  Everyone from Marquis’ mom to the teens to the policeman (who roams menacingly the audience aisles all during the play) is given comic yet telling definitions by how they are dress by Ms. Whitaker.

As powerfully compelling and thought-provoking as the play is with an ending effect that is numbing in a somewhat sickening way, there are some devices that do not work so well along the way.  Some scenes replay several times in different versions for reasons that, at least for me, are not obvious as to why.  There are also a number of times when Nietsche’s beliefs about Greek culture and philosophy come to life in the dreams of Marquis as Apollo and Dionysus.  These side-trips somewhat work but also are distracting and a bit silly in the way staged.

For me, the power of  Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies is in the interactions of the teens of the play and the realities that confront them whenever they step outside the protection of their own bedrooms.  Congratulations to Custom Made Theatre for daring to stage this funny yet uncomfortable play that demands follow-up thought and discussion.  Exiting, I was left one with particular image of hooded boys, their backs to us with arms raised, that will likely not fade from my memory for a long, long time.

Rating: 4 E

Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies continues  in an extended run through April 7, 2018 at Custom Made Theatre Company, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at www.custommade.org or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

Photo Credits:  Jay Yamada


Wednesday, March 14, 2018

"OUT of Site"


OUT of Site
Seth Eisen


Cast Members of OUT of Site
“We have been here, laying the stones, paving the way for you.”

The ghosts of LGBTQ heroes of the past 150 years come to life in the very back alleys, neighborhood bars, and hidden basements where they lived in both flair and fear in what we now know as North Beach, San Francisco. Twenty or so of us are led on a two-and-a-half hour walk in queer time and space with a number of stops along the way, meeting some thirty historical figures played by thirteen actors.  While some of the names may be familiar to us (for example, Disco Queen Sylvester or the first-ever Latino and openly gay politician, José Sarria), most are both people and stories long forgotten.  That is, forgotten until Seth Eisen of Eye Zen Presents took on the task of excavating from locked-away archives their histories and turning them into a highly entertaining and educational, theatrical walk entitled OUT of Site. 

Beginning with a welcoming ritual that is led by Two-Spirit of the now-extinct Ahwahnee tribe in the shadows of both the Trans America Building and giant redwoods, we quickly learn that the queer community of San Francisco has deep roots.  We also soon understand that immediately after the Gold Rush beginnings of the City by the Bay, there were writers in the late 1850s like Charles Warren Stoddard (played by Ryan Hayes) who were describing and living the lives of what he and his buddy Mark Twain nicknamed the “bohemians.”  And jumping up to 1908, we get a full demonstration of the most deviant dance of the times, the scandalous Turkey Trot, as same-sex couples step in tandem and hop back-and-forth in what was then the first queer bar in SF, “The Dash.” 

Cast of  OUT of Site
As we head to various stops in what was once the notorious but thriving Barbary Coast, we meet more and more women and men of various races and nationalities who add much color and detail to a history about which we knew little-to-nothing.  A celebrated poet of Japan who immigrated to the U.S. in the late nineteenth century, Yone Noguchi (a sleek and high-voiced Earl Alfred Paus) chases after his “Daddy” (Charles Stoddard) in Hotaling Alley, where their relationship was once known by friends and fellow writers like Walt Whitman.  In that same little street, we view the original iron lampposts designed by a pair of lesbian lovers named Emily and Lillian.  Our fascinating journey that jumps here and there through time and location is just beginning.

In full black dress and Spanish veil, Miss José Sarria (J. Miko Thomas who also plays Two-Spirit) meets us outside what was once the famed Black Cat Café where she sang in full drag and helped fight in court for the legal right of gays and lesbians to gather in such places.  As the walk progresses, we will eventually visit the sites and hear about other, now-defunct watering holes and performance venues that were places of social refuge and of employment for the queer and cross-dressing community – places like Mona’s 440 Club and Finocchio’s.  Re-enacted performances from these venues as well as from The Palace where the famed Cockettes drew crowds by the thousands in the early 1970s are a part of the afternoon’s outing.

North Beach’s City Lights Bookstore has a long and well-known association with the beatniks and beat poets of the late ‘50s.  What may not be as well known is the deep connections and support of the gay and lesbian writers, poets, and outspoken activists of the time.  In the alley outside the famed bookstore, Ryan Hayes, Lisa Evans, and Earl Alfred Paus step up on the “Soapbox for Cultural Sanity” to recite the queer-inspired poems of Robert Duncan, Madeline Gleason, and James Boughton, respectively.  They are followed by a supposedly spontaneous and rousing reading of one segment of Alan Ginsburg’s “Howl” that is punctuated by louder and louder cries of “Holy” by not only we as tour participants, but also by an ever-growing crowd of passers-by who pause to join in with great gusto.

While performance quality among this enthusiastic cast varies greatly, each character is portrayed with enough credibility to add an overall important piece to the total picture of the rich queer legacy of these several city blocks.  Jean-Paul Jones flamboyantly kicks, prances, and flaunts in dangerously high heels on a busy street corner as his Sylvester comes to full-voiced life (despite a terrible, portable sound system), singing in glittering drag “You Make Me Feel.”  Drivers in passing cars and folks waiting to cross the street hardly turn an eye, but then this is San Francisco.  Mr. Jones’ wonderfully sexy and sassy falsetto voice later wows us as he reenacts Sylvester’s nightclub act in a setting more conducive for us to enjoy the actor’s vocal abilities.

Impressive also in different ways is Silkey Shoemaker as the cross-dressing Milton Matson who made his living in the late nineteenth century as a male impersonator at the notorious Pacific Dime Museum, San Francisco’s so-called showcase for “freaks of nature.”  Matson’s story is told in the tunneled depths of the current Hippodrome Art Store, performed in a moving yet restrained monologue by Mr. Shoemaker.

Other noteworthy performances include that of Lisa Evans, whose dusky voice sings as the tuxedo-and-top-hat-attired Gladys Bentley, an out-lesbian performer in both Harlem and San Francisco, known as the Brown Bomber of Sophisticated Song, who also was often harassed for her masculine appearance.  And it would be remiss of me not to give special mention to Diego Gómez in the role of Queen of the Cockettes, whose crowning performance of the afternoon (along with fellow Cockettes) left us with lip-synched words that nicely sum up the live-and-let-live message echoing throughout the afternoon’s trek through North Beach’s history of a different bent:

“Share your stories; be heard and be seen.
We’re happy you’re here; we’re a family of queers.
Everybody here’s welcome.
Who wants a drink?”

Rating: 3.5 E

OUT of Site continues through March 25, 2018, Saturday at noon and 4 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.  Tickets and starting site instructions are available online at http://www.eyezen.org/.

A "Part 2" of OUT of Site focusing on the queer history of San Francisco's Tenderloin will run May 12-27, 2018.

Photos by Robbie Sweeny

"Love Never Dies"


Love Never Dies
Andrew Lloyd Webber (Music); Glenn Slater (Lyrics); Ben Elton (Book)
Charles Hart (Additional Lyrics); David Cullen & Andrew Lloyd Webber (Orchestration)

Garder Thor Cortes & Meghan Picerno
Since the longest running show in Broadway history opened in 1988 and after its six-year, record-breaking run in San Francisco (1993-1999), I must admit I have seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera at least a half dozen times and will probably go again when it returns on yet another tour later this year.  I have followed with close interest during the past eight or so years the troubled history of the sequel that Webber et al penned for Phantom – one whose premiere closed in London four days for extensive rewrites.  It was thus with both high anticipation and some trepidation that I made my way to the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts for the current version of Love Never Dies. 

I soon found that one has to suspend a lot of disbelief to accept some of the underlying, highly improbable plot factors of the sequel.  With little spoken dialogue, this is a musical that tries so very hard -- that is, often too hard -- to be a grand opera with a rhymed libretto set to waves of highly dramatic music.  Most damning (for me, at least), there is only one song of the thirty that has any chance of being remembered upon leaving (that being the title song sung as a stunning aria late in the show). 

That all said, Love Never Dies is actually visually astounding through the combined efforts of set and costume designer, Gabriela Tylesova, and lighting designer, Nick Schlieper.  The orchestration by Webber and David Cullen is admittedly beautiful, especially as performed by the fifteen-piece orchestra under the direction of Dale Rieling.  And, the improbable story that has more twists and turns than a Coney Island roller coaster does in the end have a way of sucking one in and even almost drawing a tear for its very dramatic, tragic-opera-like ending.

This sequel which occurs ten years after Phantom ends (conveniently ignore the 1907 date of the sequel and the 1881 date of the original) is a heavily re-worked version for a somewhat successful 2011 Australian run, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Glenn Slater and additional ones by Charles Hart, and book by Ben Elton.  The two-hour show (plus intermission) opens with the Phantom singing in a forlorn, subdued voice about “ten long years living a mere façade of life” because “in my mind I hear melodies pure and unearthly but I find I cannot give them a voice without you.”  The “you” is of course Christine Daaé, and it is clear the Phantom is lost without the woman who left him ten years prior to be with her lover, Raoul.  “I’ll always feel no more than halfway real ‘til I hear you sing once more,” Gardar Thor Cortes as The Phantom lets ring in an echoing and grand voice as the Prelude to Love Never Dies concludes.

Mary Michael Patterson & Cast of Love Never Dies
The Phantom is now in, of all places, Brooklyn’s Coney Island, where he was somehow brought under cover by the Paris Opera’s ballet mistress, Madame Giry, and her daughter Meg (who was also Christine’s friend in the original Phantom).  Both of them now work with him as he runs a major attraction and vaudeville show at the amusement park known as “Mister Y’s Phantasma.”  In a eye-popping, light-dazzling “The Coney Island Waltz,” we are introduced to the acrobats, dancing bear, clowns, puppets, and a trio of freak show performers (Dr. Gangle, Miss Fleck, and Mr. Squelch) of the Phantom’s current domain; and we see that Meg (Mary Michael Patterson) has become a pantaloons-and-ribbon clad, “Ooh-La-La Girl” star amongst a bevy of shimmy-shaking, frenetically dancing girls (“Only for You”).

If all this is beginning to seem a bit wild and a stretch from where we left off at the end of Phantom, just wait to see what is coming.  Christine’s marriage to a now-drunkard Raoul has left them in need of money, even though she is a much-celebrated opera singer in France.  A supposed offer by Oscar Hammerstein to come to New York to sing for the opening of his new music hall brings Christine, Raoul, and their ten-year-old (note the age!) son, Gustave, to the Big Apple. 

When the Phantom suddenly appears in Christine’s hotel room (the first of several surprise appearances he will make, increasingly more ludicrous than surprising and dramatic), the two sing an overly stylized, ridiculously dramatic “Once Upon Another Time.”  The couple’s movements and reactions (especially Mr. Cortes’) are more like those one remembers from over-done gestures in the era’s silent movies.  (It was at this point that I fully realized that Love Never Dies is for sure not the caliber of the original Phantom and that Director Simon Phillips has failed in his guiding these otherwise excellent actors to tone it down a bit.)  While both Mr. Cortes and Meghan Picerno (playing Christine) clearly have opera-trained and opera-worthy voices, the loud and emotionally laden cries they make back and forth in this first number together actually made me want both to laugh and to cry (in disappointment).  Fortunately, not all subsequent numbers by the two are so over-acted; and their voices are each often stunning to hear – even if the music and lyrics are sometimes quite unforgettable. 

The Phantom makes an offer to Christine that she and even her reluctant husband cannot refuse: Sing one song he has written for her and receive double the stipend Hammerstein is offering (an engagement that is probably a false one created by the Phantom to get Christine on the same shores as he).  The story now really begins its wild ride, with revelations about who is Gustave’s real father (guess), with Meg having a major attack of jealousy once reunited with her long-lost friend Christine, and with Christine of course drawn back beyond all reason into the magnetic powers of her “angel of music.” 

The Coney Island world of the Phantom itself is surreal and quite bizarre.  While some of the musical numbers and story events that take place in an underground of crawling creatures, mirror-encased freaks, and rotating pyramids are a showcase of set design wonder, the setting is too reminiscent of the gutters of Paris that ran under the Opera House in Phantom and not enough connected to the story at hand to make a lot of sense.

Vocally, the entire cast of principals is superb to a person; but again, the songs they deliver are often less than satisfying in lyrics and music.  The delightful surprise of the evening is the young Jake Heston Miller, who plays ten-year-old Gustave (alternating performances with Casey Lyons).  His angelic, boy soprano voice rings phenomenally clear and true with its ability to communicate curiosity, wonder, innocence, and love as required.  He also brings a mature acting ability that supersedes by many years his young age.  That he is the key, climatic element is actually one of the reasons this show comes close to being truly moving and memorable. 

Jake Heston Miller & Meghan Picerno
Gustave also shares a moving and plot-important moment with his mother in their hotel just before the Phantom makes his first appearance to her.  After being rejected by his dad Raoul (who is too preoccupied with drink to play with him), Christine and he share a duet that does really work in lyrics and music, “Look With Your Heart.”  Christine lovingly sings to her son lines that will guide him later in making a choice regarding the Phantom:  “Look with your heart and not with your eyes; a heart understands, a heart never lies.”  Both Ms. Picerno and young Mr. Miller deliver an impressive, touching moment.

Meghan Picerno
The highlight of the show – and the one that cannot be forgotten long after the final bow – is Meghan Picerno’s arrestingly beautiful aria when her Christine sings the song the Phantom has written for her, “Love Never Dies.  If Andrew Lloyd Webber had written even a few more songs in the same caliber as this one, then crazy plot lines and nonsensical scenic settings be damned.  His sequel would be another winner and would probably have been on Broadway prior to this tour – a destination so far denied the show.  Ms. Picerno could be singing in a Puccini opera in a number one might easily attribute to the master himself.  The ease with which she reaches into heavenly heights in such a soft, almost whispered voice is astonishingly exquisite as she sings, “Love never dies, love never alters ... life may be fleeting, love lives on.”

In the end, am I glad I went to see the Phantom sequel, Love Never Dies? Yes, I have to say I am because while curiosity killed the cat, my curiosity was just too great not to know what Andrew Lloyd Webber did that has had such a troubled history after so many other major stage successes.  Can I recommend the show?  With some reservations, I think it is worth the effort but maybe not the ticket price if you have to sacrifice much in order to go.  But I will have to confess this:  The San Jose audience rose in a rousing, hoorah-filled standing ovation at the end of the show as The Phantom and Christine took their bows.  So, who am I to judge? 

Rating: 3 E

Love Never Dies continues through March 18, 2018 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts as part of Broadway San Jose, 255 South Almaden Boulevard, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at http://broadwaysanjose.com.

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus