Sunday, May 27, 2018

"Dry Land"


Dry Land
Ruby Rae Spiegel



Grace Ng & Martha Brigham
If there were ever a play that should come with a few upfront “Warning” signs like those we now see on so many consumer goods, perhaps it is Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land now in a spellbinding, but often difficult-to-watch production at Shotgun Players.

--> Warning:
- Anyone who may faint at the sight of massive amounts of blood flowing from a convulsing body, be prepared to close your eyes.
- Anyone flinching at a pregnant girl getting repeatedly punched in the stomach, close your eyes.
- Anyone unable to watch a self-induced abortion, close your eyes and plug your ears.
- There will be a five-minute period of an actor playing a janitor cleaning up a locker room splattered in blood – a good time to listen to the background “Learning How to Live” by Lucinda Williams ... but watch for tears as you listen to the lyrics.

But with said set of warnings should also come the promise for a sharply compelling, thought-provoking, and ever-so timely play performed by two young actors who give award-worthy performances.  While a major thread of Dry Land is how teenage girls in much of the U.S. are given nothing but horrific choices when it comes to unwanted pregnancies, the play at its heart is much more about the constantly confusing bundle of friendships, disappointments, hopes, and dreams that make up a teenager girl’s life.  For anyone, female or male, the play also prods us to explore what it took for us to forgive things we did and said at a younger age in order to move on to be the people we now are – and have we in fact absolved ourselves of those earlier times when we were not the person we really wanted to be.

Grace Ng & Martha Brigham
Ruby Rae Spiegel’s Dry Land takes place in a Florida high school, swim team’s locker room (so realistically recreated by Angrette McCloskey one can almost smell the sweat and chlorine).  Petite-sized Ester (Grace Ng) is freaking out that her upcoming swim trial for a scholarship at Florida State may coincide with her period.  “What if my tampon falls out and what if there are streaks of blood and everyone has to evacuate the pool?” she hyperventilates to team-mate and much taller and broad-shouldered, Amy (Martha Brigham).  After some reassuring, Amy turns an erect, full-body stance toward Ester and commands, patting her tummy, “Punch me again ... Punch me harder.” 

The angst and worries of Ester are teenage real, but the unwanted pregnancy of Amy – one she has no one else but this one, not-even-best friend to tell – is beyond real, almost surreal.  Between girl jabber about boys, sex, and who has and has not done what (and Amy, it appears, has done a lot), other Internet-taught remedies for self-aborting are discussed.  Some are rejected outright (drinking the Tide Pods or Clorox that Ester bought when she could not find the organic detergent Amy wanted to drink).  Others are tried on this and subsequent times when the two are alone in the sanctity of the locker room (Ester sitting on Amy’s now-poochie stomach and the two trading swigs of a liter of vodka).  And as they talk, they also each share dreams of the future -- dreams that appear easier to come for the scholastically and athletically gifted Ester than for Amy, who is hoping to go to the local community college.

Martha Brigham & Grace Ng
As happens in high school, blossoming friendships often get tested – especially between those others see as unlikely to be friends.  Enter Amy’s rough-talking, jocular, butch-acting best friend, Reba (Amy Nowak).  Triangular relationships are often difficult, and it does not take long for the already stressed Amy to find it too much to have long-term best friend and new friend-of-necessity in the same space as she.  Fireworks erupt.  Accusations fly.  Feelings are hurt, and hurt badly. 

But the reality of a stomach that will soon be showing does not go away nor the fact that Ester is the only person whom Amy has for some reason entrusted with her secret.  The ruptured friendship cannot change those circumstances, and events begin to unfold at an alarming pace once Amy has ordered aborting pills on the Internet. 

What happens to each and both the girls is one of the most horrific and beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed on a stage, one from which I had to divert my eyes several times.  Both actors provide gripping performances that speak of skills usually seen in those much older and more experienced than either – that being especially true of Martha Brigham whose pain, terror, and yes, courage during the on-the-floor aborting sequence that we witness is chilling and horrifying.

Ariel Craft directs this coming of age play with an eye to remind us upfront that these are just typical, often silly, sometimes crude and lewd teenage girls being and doing what girls must do when alone in a locker room.  But she also does not shy away from pulling the curtain back from a horrific situation that young girls and women must find themselves on a too-frequent basis, day after day – especially under the current administration’s full-out attack on the woman’s right to choose.  And to all that, she does not let us thankfully forget that these two will move on to hopefully meet some of their dreams, probably scarred but also with lessons that will in the end serve them well.

Along with the aforementioned set designer, the director has assembled a top-notch creative team to ensure much realism of a high school setting.  Valera Coble’s costumes include the most-worn item, swim suits worthy of competitive swimmers, as well as the other items teens throw on as they rush to practice.  As fight director, Dave Maier has made the body contact so real as to cause audience to flinch and even audibly gasp.  Cassie Barnes’s lighting is stark and bright to show off the gym’s polished floor.  Sara Witsch’s sound design sometimes warns the girls of nearby others in bathrooms and hallways while also giving us a soundtrack of the music these girls probably stream on their way to and from practice.

Ruby Rae Spiegel wrote this script at the ripe old age of twenty-one, at a time her own teen years were still fresh in her memory bank.  The script is so strong in concept and dialogue, but there are elements that seem extraneous.  The core story of the two teens and their forming relationship during a difficult time loses focus when Grace goes to FSU for the swim trials and meets a wonderfully goofy guy, Victor (Adam Magill), on whose floor she is supposed to sleep in the dorm.  Their vignette is funny and cute but really adds little to the play itself. 

The inclusion of the janitor’s role (Don Wood) may be needed for clean up; but the pause in action just watching him mop is a bit bizarre.  Similarly, including a team of 5-6, non-speaking swimmers -- whom we mostly see stretching in between scenes through the locker room’s opaque glass but who ramble through the room near the play’s end on the way to practice – seems a lot of trouble just to remind us that everyone else’s life is going along as normal while this crisis is occurring under their noses.

Going to live theatre is not always just about being entertained and having a fun night out.  Choosing to see a gut-wrenching but still inspiring play like Dry Land may not be everyone’s choice for a Saturday night out on the town; but with the proper, upfront warnings and mental, emotional preparation, a production such as currently on the Shotgun Players stage can certainly by meaningful and impactful.

Rating: 3.5 E

Dry Land continues through June 17, 2018 at at the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley.  Tickets are available at https://shotgunplayers.org/  or by calling 510-841-6500.

Photos by Ben Kratz Studio

"Three Days of Rain"


Three Days of Rain
Richard Greenberg

Tasi Alabastro Robert Sean Campbell
“None of this ever happened.”  In the midst of a heated argument, inner feelings flow unabashedly into the open; closely held secrets tumble into the light of day; and suddenly looks of shock and regret replace those of intended insult and resulting anger.  In Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain, now at Dragon Productions Theatre Company, this same sequence occurs decades apart by members of two families and their two generations, leading each time to an uneasy agreement to act as if nothing ever occurred.  In this 1998 Pulitzer Prize nominated drama, the question of what really happened years prior and who did what becomes central to three grown children after two of the three of their parents have passed away and the third is losing her mind.   In the end, the play leads each of us to question how much do we really know about our own families’ histories and why we are who we are today.

For my complete review, please proceed to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj125.html.


Rating: 4.5 E

Three Days of Rain continues through June 17, 2018 at Dragon Productions Theatre Company, 2120 Broadway Street, Redwood City, CA.  Tickets are available online at dragonproductions.net or by calling 650-493-2006.

Photo Credit: Scott Ragle



Friday, May 25, 2018

"When Pigs Fly"


Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly
Conceived by Howard Crabtree & Mark Waldrop
Mark Waldrop (Sketches & Lyrics); Dick Gallagher (Music)


David Bicha
If we are to believe the opening scene, it all began when his Springbrook High vocational counselor, Miss Roundhole, suggested to a starry eyed Dream Curly (aka Howard Crabtree) that he could look forward to one of four vocational options: watch repair, plumber, garden supply, or chicken farming.  For Curly (who had come that day proudly dressed into her office in his “feathered chaps, sparkling vest, and false eyelashes”), the stage was his only real option for life -- a choice the dowdy Miss RH now on our stage replies snottily (as once did the real teacher of Howard’s) will only happen “when pigs fly.”

And so it came to pass (perhaps in part to spite the teacher) that Howard Crabtree grew up to become a prolific costume designer and cabaret performer as well as the creator of the Drama Desk winning musical review Whoop-Dee-Doo.  And just before he lost his battle with AIDS, the so-called Miss Roundhole’s prediction did indeed come true.  When Pigs Fly became his rollicking, over-the-top, simply FABULOUS (all caps, for sure) farewell that premiered Off-Broadway in August, 1996, one month after its co-creator had died, going on also to win his second Drama Desk Award for Best Musical Review.

Chris Plank, Philippe Gosselin, J. Conrad Frank, Ryan Vásquez & David Bicha
In 2003, New Conservatory Theatre Center opened a costume-crazy, rollercoaster-wild Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly that folks like myself still remember with huge grins -- a show that jabbed during the first Bush era with political glee the likes of Newt, Strom, and Rush.  Now fifteen years later and under the gleefully wicked direction of Ed Decker, NCTC pulls out all the stops to open a gloriously gay and glamorous, revised version of When Pigs Fly with many of the original, lyrically hilarious songs (by Mark Waldrop) but also with new tongue-tickling songs with catchy tunes (music by Dick Gallagher).  Costumes that rival San Francisco’s Beach Blanket Babylon in their eye-popping silliness and ceiling-aspiring heights are more outlandish than ever (the creations of Wes Crain, Keri Fitch, and Jorge R. Hernández).  And in 2018, the current, orange-haired President and his Veep and Boyfriend (as in Vladimir) become the targets of some delicious, sex-saturated satire. 

As Howard’s Dream Curly himself lets us know in the opening number, what we are about to see is “a big party smorgasbord and a generous helping of ham.”  After all, “Brother, you ain’t seen a thing until you see bacon take to wing.”  Finally, just in case anyone has not figured it out, he sings, “The shows a queer one, no doubt; to be in it, you have to be out.”

Miss Roundtree was right about one thing but did not go far enough.  Howard’s Curly, as played by J. Conrad Frank, does have dreamily long eyelashes (who cares if they are indeed false) along with a smile that radiates to the last row of Decker Theatre.  He also sings with an exuberance that is absolutely contagious.  Howard is determined to put on a stage show that will prove wrong Miss RH’s dire predictions for his life – a stage extravaganza to be complete with a show-topping flying pig. 

David Bicha
But first he has to convince his pal, David Bicha, that a pig role is in his future, something David finds increasingly difficult to accept after having first to play a bubble-breasted mermaid with stage-filling hair in a number that totally falls apart (“Mermaid’s Song”).  He is also appalled to be cast as a tree in the Garden of Eden where his face is not seen (“Adam and Steve”) – another number that ends hardly before it begins as David stomps off the stage in gigantic, tree indignity. 

But just as he does playing Mrs. Roundtable, David does get to reign supreme as Carol Ann Knippel who is out to introduce in all her Carol Channing drag voice and looks the next season of “The Melody Barn,” a local theatre group that has decided to write its own musicals.  Watch out Quasimodo and Annie:  Your reincarnations are scary!

Also in Howard’s troupe of sparkly, glittering thespians are three more equally talented, comic actors extraordinaire.  All five must have a helluva time changing in a matter of scant minutes their oft-protruding costumes, oversized and over-ratted wigs (designed by David Carver Ford), and much-glitterized make-up.

Phillipe Gosselin, to the audience’s delight, is often called upon in the various roles he plays to bare his hairy, hunky chest, as in a shower scene (“Not All Man”) where when he emerges to show there is more to him than at first meets the eye, singing with much spunk and spark, “Why do they kid I’m not a man?”  Chris Plank time and again proves himself to be a comic king with facial expressions that draw many laughs, getting one of the night’s biggest applauses in “Bigger Is Better” -- a number where in feathered headdress, a body blown up bigger than a small truck, and beach-ball size bosoms he belts, “Would you rather ride a pogo stick or in a full-size limousine?”  After all, he continues blasting in true diva style, “Life is like a paycheck; a generous figure is always nice.”

Among the quintet of fine voices, Ryan Vásquez rises to the top with one that time and again singularly impresses with tones pure and pretty.  At the same time, he too is hilarious, as in a three-part “Torch Song” where he appears periodically throughout the evening to croon his love while fawning over pictures of Donald, then Mike, and finally Vladimir.  To Mike Pence, he teasingly sings in one of his many sexually laden come-ons, “You come from Indiana; I’m an East Coast laddie ... Doesn’t it make sense you’ll be my Hoosier daddy?” (with “Hoosier” getting extra and elongated emphasis). 

Chris Plank, J. Conrad Frank, Ryan Vásquez & David Bicha
All the boys also are marvelous in harmonies and comic antics when singing and dancing as an ensemble.  In such numbers as “You Can’t Take the Color Out of Colorado”, “Wear Your Vanity with Pride,” and the finale “Over the Top/When Pigs Fly,” the five don more of the incredible costumes that only get more and more kooky and kinky as the evening progresses.  They also carry out with ease the soft-shoe, high-step, or minuet choreography so farcically designed by Jayne Zaban.  Christopher Sauceda ensures the right quirkiness for fun-filled, well-timed sound effects while Robert Hahn highlights in the right spots and hues the twenty or so scenes and their songs with his lighting design.  As Music Director, Joe Wicht also reigns supreme at stage’s edge on the keyboards while Tim Vaughn is the unseen but very present drummer for the show.

In a music review so zany as Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly, not every number is going to work to the same stellar degree; and there are a couple in the NCTC evening that fall ever so slightly flat when compared to all the others.  But those are few and far between, and even they draw some laughs.  All in all, it would be difficult not to have a better night out on the town that New Conservatory Theatre Center’s Pigs, especially if looking to escape the ever-depressing headlines of the day’s news. 

After making visual love to a pop-up and chesty Vladimir Putin but then rejecting him with “Bad guys win ... Optimism’s wearing thin,” Ryan Vásquez reminds us in an upbeat note what is maybe the biggest reason to head to NCTC’s When Pigs Fly, “It’s time like these that laughter matters most of all.” 

 Rating: 4.5 E

Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly continues through June 10, 2018 on the Decker Stage of the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema



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.