Sunday, September 30, 2018

"Red Scare on Sunset"


Red Scare on Sunset
Charles Busch

J. Conrad Frank & Nancy French
With the red-headed, red-lipped looks and antics when she’s happy of Lucille Ball’s Lucy and the snarls and evil eyes of Bette Davis’s Sweet Charlotte when she’s not, Hollywood starlet of 1951 Mary Dale swishes about in petticoat-packed skirts that Donna Reed would have died to own.  As her facial expressions freeze momentarily in a myriad of purposively shocked-looking expressions – eyes bigger than silver dollars and eyelashes almost reaching into the first row of audience – Mary Dale discovers that the Red-Ruskie Commies are infiltrating her beloved Beverley Hills palatial domain.  Even her actor-husband, Frank Taggart, and her best friend and radio comedian, Pat Pilford, are falling victim to the lure of those despicable method-acting classes that are all a part of the Soviet plot to take over Hollywood and the U.S.A.  What is a girl to do but use her looks, her wits, and her size-13 heels to kick those Commie bums out and save the red, white, and blue she so loves! 

Focusing on one of the most despicable periods of American history – present one excepted – Charles Busch parodies in a comedy full of camp, crass, and cheese the McCarthy hearings of the early ‘50s that upended and ruined hundreds of lives and careers in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and beyond.  New Conservatory Theatre Center opens its season with the long-overdue, San Francisco premiere of Red Scare on Sunset, a razor-sharp spoof of McCarthy’s now-vilified, political witch-hunt that has too many parallels to the actual occurrences we are seeing in this era of Trump. 

J. Conrad Frank
As movie star Mary Dale, J. Conrad Frank reigns drag-queen supreme, making it difficult to focus on anyone else when she is on the stage.  Never has a skirt been so dramatically swooshed in so many flaring manners.  Never have so many overwrought expressions full of everything from flirt to fright filled a face so full of overdone make-up.  And never has there been such a display of ferociously funny femininity exhibited by someone with hands that large! 

In a city and a theatre center that have both seen their fair share of drag queen performances for the ages, J. Conrad Frank may well deserve to be crowned the queen of all queens.  His Mary Dale does not let one moment in the spot light go by that is not worthy of comparison to that famed Silver Screen moment of “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. Demille.”  When she brings the house down at one point portraying Lady Godiva, Mary’s lip-synching toe trots across stage are a combined homage and parody of every drag queen’s featured, spotlight solo.  And in the many elaborately ordained, eye-popping gowns of oranges, pinks, and greens that Mary Dale dons (a different one with matching hats and heels every time she comes on stage, all designed by Mr. David), she is in fact “Queen for a Day.”

Nancy French & J. Conrad Frank
Mary Dale’s best friend, Pat Pilford, is herself a Commie-hating, flag-waving patriot, using her uber-popular radio variety show publicly to fire loyal employees whom she suspects are reds-in-hiding.  While not a drag queen, Nancy French as Pat has all the bold, brassy moves of a drag star and wears wonderfully outlandish outfits and hats worthy of any Castro Street, strutting queen (part of the period-perfect designs by Ruby Vixon).  As she has in so many other celebrated, Bay Area stage roles, Nancy French uses her built-in, wry sense of humor; her blinking eyelids that speak a language all their own; and a sudden way of surprise moves that allow her Pat Pilford to rival continually for equal attention to that of J. Conrad Frank’s Mary Dale. 

Kyle Goldman & J. Conrad Frank
But Pat Pilford is not long for her unabashed Commie bashing.  She becomes one of several who has a past secret that has been discovered by the Hollywood film-lords who themselves are Reds – or so it seems.  Secrets galore are sealed in brown envelopes and locked in file cabinets that begin to spill forward as twists and turns jerk our story and the characters in it into a red-scare frenzy.  Eventually caught up in the fray are also Mary Dale’s hunky hubby Frank (Kyle Goldman) and her loyal house-servant Malcom (Kyle Dayrit), the latter who more than a little enjoys stripping the former when Frank comes home at night too drunk to get in bed on his own. 

Kyle Dayrit, Baily Hopkins, J. Conrad Frank & David Bicha
They -- along with other cast members David Bicha, Baily Hopkins, Robert Molossi, and Joe Wicht – have many opportunities to take the tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top direction of Allen Sawyer and become caricatures of the commie-scare, B-films of the 1950s.  Several of the actors play multiple parts that vary widely in age and sex, but it is the appearance of David Bicha’s “Granny Lou” that erupts into the night’s loudest, longest audience approval.  The old lady appears from somewhere in the beyond to advise her distraught granddaughter, Mary Dale, how to survive and win against the invading Commies ruining her life.  Mr. Bicha’s squeaky but commanding voice, his elderly joints that can barely bend, and his overall demeanor of the granny we all can admire for her spunk and spirit are a winning combination for best featured actor of the evening.

Along with costumes that are a constant parade of eye-popping colors and reams of billowing or tucked material, the other creative effects of this NCTC production are fabulously conceived for this lampoon with a punch.  Kuo-Hao Lo’s Beverley Hills scenes of a starlet’s home and a mongrel’s office are like cutouts of a scene designer’s mock-up, with hilarious touches added by Ting-Na Wang’s designed properties (like a golden, elephant-shaped telephone so dramatically and delicately held by a talking Mary Dale).  Diana Carey has created an accompanying sound track that is so Hollywood ’50s in the tunes selected that the NCTC production needs its own CD for us to take home.  The lighting of Sophia Craven highlights the red-scare threat and offers an appropriately cartoonish feel to some of the more wild and wooly scenes.

For some potential audience members, the degree of riotous ridiculous that both playwright Charles Busch and director Allen Sawyer bring to this New Conservatory Theatre Center production may be a bit too much.  Some scenes do go overboard, and not every actor is able to match in every scene the consistently brilliant performances by J. Conrad Frank and Nancy French.  But overall, this Red Scare on Sunset is a welcome comic-filled relief and remedy to the barrage of troubling and sometimes scary news we are receiving every day and is a reminder -- as Artistic Director Ed Decker writes in his opening program notes --  “Hatred, malice, and bigotry have no place here.”

Rating: 4 E

Red Scare on Sunset continues through October 21, 2018 at 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.

Photo by Lois Tema

Sunday, September 23, 2018

"You Mean to Do Me Harm"


You Mean to Do Me Harm
Christopher Chen



Katie Rubin, Jomar Tagatac, Charisse Loriaux & Cassidy Brown
When during a dinner party between two married couple a memory is shared of a camping trip (somehow involving a log, three squirrels, and Harry Potter) between the husband of one pairing and the wife of another, the seeds of “the camping incident” are firmly planted.  What started as a funny, little, one-minute story somehow in the days/weeks to come grows into a “camping war,” taking on new dimensions of importance of “Camping Gate” and the “Camping Missile Crisis.”  That each couple is a mixed Caucasian, Chinese-American pairing adds new complexities and subtle suspicions as mounting tensions lay bare raw cultural differences and possible racial-stereotyping – all leading to an international crisis between and among all four.  And all the time in Christopher Chen’s You Mean to Do Me Harm, neither the four principals on stage or any of us in the audience is ever quite sure what is actually being said in private, what is being overheard, and what is being played out in some other dimension.  Bill English masterfully directs the San Francisco Playhouse main-stage production of last year’s Sandbox Series world premiere with a tantalizing edge bordering somewhere between a who-done-it mystery, a spy thriller, and a psychological drama.

Jomar Tagatac, Katie Rubin, Charisse Loriaux & Cassidy Brown
When we join the dinner party as it has moved into post-dinner chit-chat over drinks, there are already some silent double-takes and looks of shared half-smirks as Daniel (born in Shanghai before immigrating with his parents as a toddler) probes Ben about his professed knowledge of China as an online content guy just hired into Daniel’s company.  The two volley terms like China “observer,” “dabbler,” or perhaps even “expert” to describe Ben’s knowledge, with somehow the term of Ben as “White China” coming up.  But that and other overall innocuous but still somewhat uneasy discussions do not have the lasting impact of the seemingly friendly venture into “nostalgia” of the squirrel and camping story.  That Lindsey, Daniel’s Caucasian wife, and equally Caucasian Ben have a shared history in the California redwoods near Emerald Lake (during a time when they in fact once dated) seems news to both Daniel and Ben’s wife, Samantha, who was born in the U.S. of first-generation, Chinese parents.

Angrette McCloskey has created a rather sparse but highly stylized set where a couple of chairs and a table all that occupy a center stage with light-lined ramps on either side leading up to a back stage that can be traversed from one side to the next.   Above each ramp, mirrored ceilings hang at an angle to reflect those on the ramp while in the back, two huge, redwood trunks lie in the air parallel in front of a wall-filling projection screen.  The lighting of Kurt Landisman adds to the surreal feeling of the stage, with sudden, blinding flashes accompanied by electric-sounding static announcing the sudden and rather frequent scene changes.  Those sounds are just part of Theodore J.H. Hulsker’s well-timed, well-executed sound design, while his vibrating projections of forms and shapes aid in the scene switches.  His projections of scenes combine with Mr. Landisman’s lighting to establish sometimes beautiful, sometimes stark, and sometimes eerie backdrops to the conversations taking place – conversations that shift in pairings as each scene change occurs.

Katie Rubin, Cassidy Brown, Jomar Tagatac & Charisse Loriaux
This entire creative team works in harmony with the direction of Bill English to give the series of ensuing, two-person meetings a sense of mystery and other-worldliness.  When any two of the four principals are in conversation on the central stage, the other two are somewhere on either the ramps or the back, intently watching.  At first, they appear to be observing in frozen positions and blank, facial expressions; but increasingly, one notices subtle and then more and more obvious reactions to the conversations below them.  As the play’s ninety minutes pass deeper into the conversations that become ever more confrontational for a variety of reasons and revelations, the two non-speakers become more active players in the present conversation in ways fascinating, surprising, even slightly disturbing.  The levels and channels become multiple-dimensional of what is being communicated in the two-way, rapidly proceeding, paired conversations.

In fact, the word “channel” becomes an even more frequent visitor to appear in the conversations than the oft-appearing word “camping.”  There is mention of a “hidden channel” as Daniel says, “I can see him (Ben) seeing us seeing him.”  As pairs try to unravel what is real and what is not about their various relationships on both a personal and a professional basis, who is to blame becomes a topic, with sometimes any two claiming to “be on the same channel” or one finally asserting “on some channel, I can see everything, can’t you?”  Playwright Chen and Director English corroborate deliciously to involve us in an unraveling of past, present, and evolving relationships where no one – including us – can be quite sure what shoe will drop next nor what is really happening and what might just be all in someone’s imagination.  And all along, cultural assumptions and misassumptions keep finding their ways into the already tension-filled conversations.

The sense of incredulity that permeates each person who is trying to figure out what is real and what is not about what others are saying in confidence or in passing is further enhanced by each person often repeating the last word the other person just said with a question mark implied in the vocal tone used.  The director beautifully employs short, pregnant pauses in between and around these repeated words, with the actors often having sustained looks that are somewhere between stun, amusement, inquisitiveness, and incredulousness.  This sequence repeats itself many times throughout the entire evening and adds to the sense of searching for the real meaning of what is going on.

Katie Rubin & Charisse Loriaux
This is truly an ensemble piece where each person of the talented cast has a chance to shine in multiple dimensions along a wide range of emotional expressions.  There is no one star; all equally contribute to deliver over and again knock-out punches of winning performances.  The ongoing rub of her neck along with some not-quite-silent huffs and puffs (Katie Rubin as Lindsey), an eyebrow that raises just at the moment his lip turns cynically upward (Jomar Tagatac as Daniel), his puppy-dog boyishness eventually giving way to outbreaks of maniacal madness (Cassidy Brown as Ben), or her sense of sophisticated calm losing ever so methodically its coolness as she becomes passionate about her views and feelings (Charisse Loriaux as Samantha) are just a few examples of the ways these individual actors take the playwright’s words and the director’s guidance and create a story spellbinding.

If ever I have seen a play recently that my immediate reaction is “I need to see this one again,” it is this San Francisco Playhouse’s production of Christopher Chen’s You Mean to Do Me Harm.  I cannot swear that I walked away with a full understanding of what just happened, but the mastery of the mystery is having a magnetic effect on me, luring me back to see exactly who is doing harm to whom, and why.  I have my own theories.

Rating: 5 E

You Mean to Do Me Harm continues through November 3, 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 Ken Levin


Saturday, September 22, 2018

"God of Carnage"


God of Carnage
Yasmina Reza


Avondina Wills, Karyn Rondeau, 
Erik Gandolfi & April Green
Director Virginia Drake has pulled no punches in ensuring that the uproariously funny and furiously outrageous City Lights Theater Company production of God of Carnage will both delight and shock its audience with a terrific take on this dark drama/comedy about modern-day parenting.  Playwrirght  Yasmina Reza has taken the current term “helicopter parents” (i.e., those parents who zoom in to over-involve themselves in matters kids once handled themselves) and has rendered two sets of busy bodies who soon become “fighter-jet” parents. 

For my full review, please go to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj137.html.


Rating: 4.5 E

God of Carnage continues through October 14, 2018 at 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
 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch"


Hedwig and the Angry Inch
John Cameron Mitchell (Book); Stephen Trask (Music & Lyrics)

Coleton Schmitto
In the past few years, Ray of Light Theatre has garnered a wildly enthusiastic and loyal audience that will pack night after night the cavernous Victoria Theatre for excellent, high-quality, and often quite bizarre musicals that the company produces.  Titles like Carrie the Musical, Heathers the Musical, Silence the Musical, Lizzie, Yeast Nation, and Triassic Park are not ones that have shown up on many other – if any – stages in the Bay Area.  The accumulation of stories about murderers, dinosaurs, and vindictive teenagers has led to many local awards and a venue like Victoria Theatre and its near 500-seat capacity being filled with an audience full of buzzing excitement.

In that tradition, Ray of Light Theatre now opens a punk-rock musical about a boy who sacrifices his gender-defining member in order to escape East Germany with the American soldier who claims to love him – all done just before the wall between the two halves of Germany comes tumbling down.  For many years, the 1998 Off-Broadway Hedwig and the Angry Inch by John Cameron Mitchell (book) and Stephen Trask (music and lyrics) did not make its way to main stages in the Bay Area; but over the years, there have since been a number of outstanding productions (including Boxcar’s 2012-13 memorable production with 8-12 Hedwigs playing the lead part; the celebrated national, Broadway tour that landed in San Francisco in 2016; and the recent [much touted by this reviewer) The Stage production this past spring in San Jose]).  And now Ray of Light explodes in full fury its own version of Hedwig and the Angry Inch in a production brimming with many innovative touches and much on-stage talent but failing in some key ways to measure up completely to the previous, Bay Area productions mentioned above.

Coleton Shmitto and Maya Michal Sherer play gender-fluid Hedwig and her back-up singing husband, Yitzhak, a former drag queen.  The ninety-minute concert format of the show mixes bawdily funny stand-up comedy, wildly athletic and sex-packed choreography, and super-charged rock numbers to tell a bizarre but beautiful story of two people seeking to find peace in who they are, individually and together. 

With eyes enveloped in blue, lips glistening in sparkling red, and hair dyed blonde and puffy like a giant balloon, Hedwig arrives and begins what at first looks like a stand-up act for a gay nightclub in the Castro.  With lines like “When I think of all the people who I have come upon in my life, I have to think of all the people who have come upon me,” Hedwig rattles off a barrage of bawdy but also folksy comments, bouncing all over the stage and making suggestive contacts with howling members in the audience. 

Hedwig eventually begins to tell her life story, recounting in “Tear Me Down” (with harmonized help from a background-singing Yitzak) how she is like that hated symbol in Berlin, a wall “reviled, graffitied, spit upon.” She sings with strong, intense voice, “Hedwig is like that wall, standing before you in the divide between East and West, slavery and freedom, man and woman.”

Much of Hedwig’s story is told through the biting, no-holes-barred lyrics of Stephen Trask; and there lies one of the major problems of this Ray of Light production.  When the five members of the onstage band, The Angry Inch, accompanying her in roaring-loud, bone-jarring, rock-concert mode, the sung words of Hedwig were more often than not on opening night totally incomprehensible. 

Coleton Schmitto & Members of The Angry Inch
This has been a problem for other productions that I have attended at the Victoria; but in this case, the issue affected understanding the storyline and continued all evening.  Only when Hedwig sang a few songs accompanied by just a keyboard or a lone guitar were her words totally understood (like in the moving and beautifully sung in sweet falsetto, “Wig in a Box”).  For those of us who already knew most songs by heart or at least knew the story itself (from stage and/or film), the sound imbalance may not have been such an issue; but for newcomers to the story (like my companion for the evening), much of the story remained a mystery overall.

Directorial choices in this production also do not measure up to bring out the entire possibilities of the show, in my opinion, again especially when compared to other interpretations I have seen.  Co-directors Sailor Galaviz and Jason Hoover choose to keep the band members themselves mostly anonymous and in their places as a band.  In other productions, band members take on immigrant names and individual punk personas and personalities while playing, singing, and often interacting in song, dance, and bodily contact with Hedwig.  That kind of interaction and energy is largely missing in this production.

That all said, Coleton Schmitto in rip-roaring, raucous style stomps and steps with flair and fling from one side of the massive stage to the other, telling Hedwig’s tale of much woe -- often climbing on speakers or tumbling to the floor.  Hedwig tells how a boy named Hansel born in East Berlin in 1961eventually ends up as female Hedwig, married in 1989 to a U.S. soldier named Luther in Junction City, Kansas.  That Hansel had to have a botched sex-change operation to escape the Iron Curtain (“Six inches forward and five inches back ... I got an angry inch”) and that Luther finds a boyfriend and leaves his bride trailer-park-poor on their first anniversary (the same day the Berlin wall came down) is only part of the sad tale Hedwig relates in both conversation and song.

As she tells her story, Hedwig (and/or Yitzhak) becomes other key characters, starting with her East German mother who insisted then-son Hansel practice his singing with head in the oven in order not to disturb her.  When the American soldier Luther sees Hansel sunning himself in the nude, Hedwig recalls their first encounter in “Sugar Daddy,” singing in a string-skirt laced with penny candies of all sorts, “I’ve got a sweet tooth for licorice drops and jelly roll ... Hey, sugar daddy, Hansel needs some sugar in his bowl.” 

Coleton Schmitto
Other character transformations are to occur during the rest of Hedwig’s tale of tears, but the greatest character conversion accomplishment of Hedwig and Coleton Schmitto comes late in the show when Hedwig strips away all signs of his feminine self to appear in near the birthday suit to which he was born, morphing into Tommy Gnosis, the now-stage name of the teenage boy he once taught to sing.  Throughout Hedwig’s show, Tommy has been heard from time to time blasting forth his own rock concert in a near-by, sold-out Giants ballpark (something we hear thanks to sound engineering of Anton Hedman).  Hedwig bitterly and forlornly believes Tommy has totally forgotten her.  As the stripped-down, sweat-dripping Tommy climbs to the top of a center-stage ladder, Coleton Schmitto now as the rock star finally acknowledges his debt to Hedwig -- a reprise of the song Hedwig earlier sings when she writes it for the then-seventeen-year-old Tommy, “Wicked Little Town.”

Maya Michal Sherer
Throughout the concert/staged story, Hedwig has been joined in back-up by her silent, morose-looking husband Yitzhak, the Jewish ex-drag queen.  In this production, while there is some directed sarcastic comments by Hedwig to Yitzhak (and under-the-breath threats of immigration agents arriving), there is not as much verbal and physical antipathy by Hedwig as I have seen in most other productions, leaving Yitzhak with less of a presence and a defined personality in this particular rendition.  However, when Yitzhak is finally given a chance by Hedwig to don a wig and become the drag queen he longs to be, Maya Michael Sherer delivers the night’s best-sung number in a glorious, gutsy soprano voice as she sings over and again to an arm-waving audience, “Lift up your hands.”

Even with some of the choices and the issues with sound that inhibit the full, net-effect of this powerful musical to be realized, this Ray of Light production does owe much of its energizing impact to people like costume designer Maggie Whitaker, wig designers Amy Bobeda and Becky Motorlodge, and especially lighting designer Joe D’Emilio, whose brilliantly placed spots and lighting choices produced shadowed scenic effects that brought their own script to the storytelling.  Kudos go to them, to the entire production team, the band, and the two principals for the insanely enthusiastic, electrifying efforts given by all for this Ray of Light Theatre offering of Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Rating: 3.5 E

Hedwig and the Angry Inch continues through October 6, 2018 by Ray of Light Theatre at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at http://rayoflighttheatre.com/ .

Photos by Alexander Belmont.

Monday, September 17, 2018

"A Doll's House, Part 2"


A Doll’s House, Part 2
Lucas Hnath


Mary Beth Fisher & Nancy E. Carroll
Anyone who has ever seen, read, or even heard of Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 classic play, A Doll’s House, has probably created some internal scenario of what happens in the weeks, months, and/or years after young wife/mother Nora Helmer slams the door to her house, leaving her husband and three young children in order to go out into the world and discover her real self.  Maybe that is why when Lucas Hnath’s 2017, Tony nominated play, A Doll’s House, Part 2 begins with a soft knock followed by a loud bang on the door, many folks in the audience immediately laugh. 

All of us who are Ibsen fans are anxious to see Nora return fifteen years later, to find out what happened to her, and to see the reactions of those left behind.   But what soon becomes clear about the spectacularly conceived and scripted A Doll’s House, Part 2 by Lucas Hnath is that the new work is not a sequel; it is a play full of both drama and comedy that stands independently on its own with no need to have seen Ibsen’s original. As currently produced by Berkeley Repertory Theatre -- in a co-production with Huntington Theatre -- A Doll’s House, Part 2 is ninety minutes of live theatre at its best, thanks to the impeccably timed, cleverly conceived direction by Les Walters and a cast of four who each capture a persona singularly memorable!

What is immediately clear when the door opens and Nora appears in this 1894 Norwegian household is that this runaway has since been quite successful and is a woman full of self-assurance.  Tall, erect in posture, and head slightly raised with a strong hint of independent confidence, Nora arrives in high-styled coat and hat and totally shocks a dumbstruck Anne Marie -- a limping, aged woman who once raised Nora as her nanny and subsequently raised Nora’s three, abandoned children to their adulthood.  Nora lets it be known, “I’m not the same person who left through that door.”  Anne Marie agrees, noting, “You got a little fatter; you got a little older ... How are your insides?” 

That kind of wry humor continually finds its way into Lucas Hnath’s smart script as well as into choices in Les Walters’ direction – the latter often punctuating the spoken words with delicious pauses that overflow with speechless looks between characters that say volumes loud and clear.  In Part One of five that claims the title “Nora” (as projected on the room’s blank, back wall), Nancy E. Carroll powerfully and passionately makes Nora’s case to the stunned, mostly silent Anne Marie (Mary Beth Fisher) how as a highly successful writer of books about women, she has come to believe that marriage is an institution long overdue its deserved extinction, something she believes will inevitably happen within a few decades.  “Marriage destroys women’s lives,” she preaches to the now scowling, clearly disagreeing Anne Marie.  “Most people would be more fulfilled not being married.” 

Triumphant in her exposé on the evils of marriage (and in doing so sure that she has proven to Anne Marie why she is now a well-renowned, influential author), Nora proceeds to explain why she has arrived.  She has recently discovered that the husband she abruptly left never filed for divorce -- Norway being a country where only the male could file for divorce for no expressed reason and where a woman could only do so if she could prove her husband had done something physically awful and threatening to her.  Further, women at that time could not do business on their own nor take out loans without their husband’s approval.  A loan Nora had once secretly taken out to help her husband take a needed rest in Italy for his health had been discovered by a judge who did not like her views on women’s liberation. That judge now threatens to expose her and most probably ruin her reputation, end her career, and send her to prison.

Nora is now desperately (but without appearing desperate) looking for a way out of this predicament; and for that, she needs and fully expects cooperation from the man to whom she is in fact still his lawfully wedded.  She also is seeking and sure she will get Anne Marie’s aid.  However, the negative responses she receives from her once-nanny are defiantly, humorously (to us) peppered with four-letter words one does not expect from an elderly nanny in the late 1800’s. 

Mary Beth Fisher & Nancy C. Carroll
Both Nancy Carroll and Mary Beth Fisher are extraordinarily splendid in their separate portrayals of two women who have very different outlooks on the role of women in their society.  Ms. Carroll’s Nora is constantly adjusting her arguments and approaches to convince first Anne Marie and later her husband, Torbald, and even her daughter, Emmy, that she deserves their help to remedy this injustice to her – an injustice in her view that is just one of many that all women suffer in a male-dominated world.  She moves about like a boxer in the fighting ring, sizing up her current opponent and looking for ways to coax that person to her side before hitting them with a knock-out argument to win sure-approval of her current request.  At the same time as she runs into what seem often as dead-ends, her Nora gains even more certainty in her own beliefs and next steps, leading to some surprising decisions about her future that only escalate her commanding presence and self-assuredness.

As Anne Marie, Mary Beth Fisher is equally strong and determined in her own right and in her own view of what is right and wrong.  Her initial stone-faced and flat, nasally responses to Nora’s life story and lecture on marriage give way to pointed, strongly felt remarks about how she views Nora’s life decisions and their effects on the rest of the family – including her.  Ms. Fisher displays a myriad of expressions with just a slight movement of head, eyes, or mouth – and even when she is just listening, she is usually communicating entire scripts of her own feelings and reactions.

John Judd & Mary Beth Fisher
When husband/banker Torvald unexpectedly arrives and sees the surprise visitor, his first reaction is, “I have to go to the bathroom.”  When he returns, John Judd does everything he can as Torvald to avoid directly facing Nora, even as she keeps shifting to try to confront him more directly.  When his frozen silence and/or short, expressionless responses finally give way to his emerging response to her request for a divorce, Mr. Judd’s expressions of increasing smirk-to-full-on-grin are enough script to tell us as audience what he will say without having to wait for his spoken words.

Nikki Massoud
The final member of this excellent cast is Nikki Massoud as late-teen Emmy, the daughter of Nora who has no memory of her mother, being only slightly older than a baby when Nora left the family.  When the two meet, Emmy is chatty, cheerful, and fully confident in her own right.  To Nora’s look of combined pride and hurt, Emmy casually remarks, “I think I am better off without growing up with you here.” 

Nora soon learns just how assured and resourceful Emmy is while at the same time she begins to understand that this daughter who is as strong-headed and determined as she, has ideas and beliefs far different from hers – and thus of course in Nora’s view, wrong.  The interactions between mother and daughter are fabulously conceived and orchestrated and are one more example of the play’s overall spell-bounding effects as family members come to grips with their shared and unshared histories, beliefs, and plans of action.

The near-vacant stage with blank, white walls and only the slightest touches of a house’s interior (all designed by Andrew Boyce) provides ample room for the words of the playwright and the personalities of the four principals to fill in all the details one needs to see the complete picture vividly.  Yi Zhao’s striking lighting design makes telling contributions with well-timed shadows or invading light from a hallway to highlight current dialogue and/or revelations.  Annie Smart’s period-appropriate costumes help define the unique personality of each person we meet, including the particularly stunning dress she has created for Nora to swirl around as she paces the room trying to convince each of the other three to do her will.

Nora, Torvald, Emmy, and Anne Marie each take the opportunity to voice their stories and their world views; and each exposes reasons for our to sympathize with them and/or to question their decisions/viewpoints (especially the three Helmer family members).  Their interactions and stances provide rich fodder for follow-up contemplations and discussions by audience members, with the playwright being coy enough never to tip his hand as to which member he favors.  Lucas Hnath’s presentation is more as an observer/reporter with no taking of sides, one way or the other. 

In the hands of Director Les Walters and this highly capable cast and creative team, Berkeley Repertory’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 becomes a do-not-miss production, sure to delight and stimulate both the Ibsen fan and the Ibsen neophyte.

Rating: 5 E

A Doll’s House, Part 2 continues through October 21, 2018 on the Peet’s Theatre stage of Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available at http://www.berkeleyrep.org/boxoffice/index.asp or by calling 510-647-2975 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Company





Friday, September 14, 2018

"The Legend of Georgia McBride"


The Legend of Georgia McBride
Matthew Lopez


Michael Weiland, Jeffrey Scott Adair & Michael Saenz
Los Altos Stage Company opens its season with Matthew Lopez’s 2015 rib-tickling, heart-warming comedy, The Legend of Georgia McBride -- a play brimming with multi-colored wigs, false eyelashes, and size 13 high heels.  With the kind of frivolity and fabulousness that only drag queens can provide, The Legend of Georgia McBride also proves how the performing arts – even on a small-town stage full of drag queens -- can bring together folks highly diverse in background, gender, gender identity, race, and personality and turn them into one caring, loving family.

For my entire review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway:  \https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj136.html.


Rating: 4 E

The Legend of Georgia McBride continues through September 30, 2018 at Los Altos Stage Company, 97 Hillview Avenue, Los Altos, CA.  Tickets are available online at http://losaltosstage.org or Monday – Friday, 3 – 6 p. in person at the box office or by calling 650-941-0551.

Photo Credit: Richard Mayer
 

Monday, September 10, 2018

"Tarzan'


Tarzan
Phil Collins (Music & Lyrics); David Henry Hwang (Book)


Jimmy Mason, Jessica LaFever & the Cast of Tarzan
Even before the first note of the Phil Collins (music and lyrics) and David Henry Hwang (book) musical Tarzan is sounded, Director Patrick Klein and his cast – one that includes a dozen or so gorillas of all sizes, shapes, and ages -- have captured us as an entering audience and ensured our undivided attention.  With Tarzan as their 88th season-opener, Palo Alto Players presents a highly entertaining, fun and funny, and genuinely heart-warming jungle adventure and love story.

For my full review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj135.html. 


Rating: 4 E

Tarzan continues through September 23, 2016 by Palo Alto Players at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.  Tickets for the Palo Alto Players production are available at www.paplayer.org or by calling 650-329-0891.

Photo Credit: Joyce Goldschmid
 

Friday, September 7, 2018

"Detroit '67"


Detroit ‘67
Dominique Morisseau


Halili Knox & Akilah A. Walker
Last year, many celebrations and exhibitions packed the San Francisco calendar to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of 1967, known here and beyond as “The Summer of Love.”  While so-called hippies roamed with peace signs and tie-dyes the streets and parks of The City with their music-filled pleas for free love and no war, the summer of 1967 was also when the one of the worst, deadliest urban riots occurred in U.S. history.  In a city – not unlike many cities in America where white-dominated police forces had lashed out against their black residents with fierce force and hatred for decades -- an after-hours party filled with the sounds of homegrown, Motown music was the ignition point for a conflagration in Detroit that led to 43 deaths, 2000 buildings destroyed, and thousands of National Guard and federal troops with scores of tanks invading the city.

Dominique Morisseau recalls that deadly summer which scarred Detroit for decades afterwards in her funny and frightening, heart-warming and heart-stopping play, Detroit ’67, the first of a trilogy about her hometown.  Opening its season with Detroit ’67, Aurora Theatre Company continues the Bay Area’s growing love affair with Ms. Morisseau that began last year with Berkeley Repertory’s staging of her Ain’t Too Proud and a co-production earlier this year by Marin Theatre and TheatreWorks Silicon Valley of her Skeleton Crew. 

Directed with uncanny timing, bold touches, and much humanity by Darryl V. Jones, Aurora’s Detroit ’67 rocks with Motown sounds that soothe and soar, teases with humor both rich and raw, and shakes to the core with historical events serious and shattering.  And all along, Mr. Jones and the incredibly talented cast ensure that we know and remember that headline-grabbing, street-filled events like the Detroit riots are in the end really about the individuals who were safe and happy one day in their homes -- until suddenly they were not.

The Setting Designed by Richard Omsted
Back-wall steps lead into a basement room that is filled with touches of a family’s history including wall drawings both cute and striking, a colorful afghan probably knitted by a mother at some point, and furniture slightly worn but definitely comfy (all designed with as astute eye to the late ‘60s by Richard Olmsted and with the aid of prop master, Christina Bauer).  Chelle (short for Michelle) is having a frank conversation with her record player where the 45-disc of David Ruffin keeps sticking just as he so beautifully tries to croon, “Please don’t leave me girl.”  “Don’t go scratching up on David,” she warns with a mixture of fun and frustration as she tries to untangle another string of Christmas lights to add to those already hanging around the room with its small bar in the corner.  Chelle and her brother, Lank, are turning later in the week the home they just inherited from their recently deceased and much-adored father into a late-hours dance hall (something quite common at the time in this African-American section of Detroit at 12th and Clairmont).

Akilah A. Walker & Rafael Jordan
Tall and with perfectly permed hair full of big, fluffy curls, Chelle (Halili Knox) exudes a strong sense of determination and is clearly the firmly rooted, more conservative of the brother-sister pairing.  When we meet Lank (Rafael Jordan), we soon learn he is a happy-natured, young man who has ambitions for him and his sister and is tired of the way the whites in power outside this house treat him and others like him. (“I’m tired of being treated like trash.”)  He especially detests the much-despised “pigs” who are apt as not to stop him on the street, telling him “to get my nigger ass home and not come out again tonight.” 

Lank is ready to be “above ground, just like them white folks.”  For him, “above ground” starts with the 8-track player he has just brought home (“This is changing how we hear music, and we get to change with it”) to use tonight for their party – a device Chelle looks at in disdain as she also eyes longingly her old, but definitely flawed, portable record player.

Myers Clark & Rafael Jordan
Lank also has more plans, including using the a good portion of the $15,000 their parents have left them to buy a neighborhood bar with his best friend Sly (Myers Clark), a smooth-moving, sweet-talking pal who is also a big dreamer.  Together, they want to open “Sly and Lank’s Feel-Good Shack,” something Chelle vehemently opposes.  To her stern looks and piercing eyes that say “no,” Lank responds in unbounded optimism and excitement, “Life is not just about keeping what you got ... It’s about making something better.”

Emily Radosevich, Akilah A. Walker & Halili Knox
The clearly strong but currently strained relationship of the siblings becomes further tested when Sly and Lank – after a night on the town and clearly both a bit tipsy – bring home a surprise that further infuriates but also frightens Chelle.  Asleep on the basement couch she finds a woman – a white woman -- asleep with multiple bruises on her arms and a face full of dried blood.  On their way home from the bars, Lank recounts how they found the young woman staggering around and then saw her collapse.  Feeling sorry for her and scared as two black men to take her to the hospital or (worse yet) to the police, they brought her home.

Caroline (Emily Radosevich) comes with many secrets of her past but also with an ability quickly to fit into the household and to be a hit at the successful dance party.  As Chelle’s best friend, Bunny (Akilah A. Walker) notes, “White girls can get the party going ... and are some kind of aphrodisiac.”  But then the full-of-pizzazz, mini-skirt-wearing Bunny is one who over-flows with zest for life and is most liable to say anything on the more outrageous side (“Don’t look at me like I got some titty in my forehead”).  Along with Sly, she is part of this extended family of the siblings where love is evident even when there are plenty of pointed jabs and moments of tensions that erupt into full-on shouting matches.

And after all, even with the invasion into their lives of Caroline and of Lank’s ideas for a new business, things are pretty normal in the Poindexter household.  That is, until 3:15 a.m. on July 23, 1967.   The events of that night and the next few days become cataclysmic both outside and inside of the small basement in ways that make everything else seem almost trivial.

This ensemble of actors – individually and collectively -- could hardly be more engaging, more gripping, or more affecting in a wide range of emotional responses from hilarity to heartbreak.  Each captures a personality that is uniquely portrayed in every respect – vocally and physically.  Twists and turns of voice and body leave lasting impressions while ensuring immediate audience response.

Supporting their efforts is a creative team that together also plays a starring role in this must-not-be-missed production.  Besides the aforementioned ‘60s-detailed scenic design of Richard Olmsted, the costumes of Kitty Muntzel are a show onto themselves with the designs, colors, materials, and (at least in terms of Bunny) shortness of skirts of the 1960s becoming an encyclopedia of the hip looks of Motown, U.S.A. 

Cliff Caruthers’ sound design is also a major factor in the play’s powerful impact from beginning to end.  Those scratchy sounds of the 45s of yesteryear and the distinct tones that could only be from anything but an eight-track both emit from their respective players (themselves museum pieces today).  The sweet outdoor sounds of birds early in the play give way to the increasingly disturbing sounds of sirens, firebombs, angry mobs, and penetrating helicopters as the riots begin – to the point of literally shaking us in our seats. 

When sound effects couple with the outstanding lighting design of Jeff Rowlings where startling red flashes and explosions from the streets outside find their way into the darkness of the basement, the fury of those riots of fifty years ago plays out in real fashion to the point of being sweat-producing.  Topping it all off are fascinating, educating, and ultimately horrifying film clips showing everything from home-based dance parties to the atrocities of police brutality in streets full of burning buildings.

There are many reasons that Aurora Theatre’s Detroit ’67 is a must-see production.  Dominique Morrisseau’s brilliant script is a captivating story full of genuine love of and devotion to family; of an entrepreneurial, can-do spirit that has made this country the envy of the world, and of the seething hate that has too long been etched into too much of the majority race for those not of their white skin.  With that script and under the inspired direction of Darryl V. Jones, this cast and creative team score a hit that is a history important to recall and to remember.

Rating: 5 E, “Must-See”

Detroit ’67 continues in extended run through October 7, 2018, at the Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA.  Tickets are available online at https://auroratheatre.org or by calling 415-843-4822.

Photo by Darryl V. Jones