Thursday, April 18, 2019

Roald Dahl's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory"


Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
David Grieg (Book); Marc Shaiman (Music); Scott Wittiman & Marc Shaiman (Lyrics)

Henry Boshart & Noah Weisberg
Currently at SHN’s Golden Gate Theatre, there are two one-act musicals appearing, both under the same title as Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – or at least it feels that way sitting through each.  The first, mildly entertaining act is a set-up for the much better, darkly humorous second act, with that first act’s best lines coming from four octogenarian grandparents stuck in a tiny bed together.  As a musical, the only truly memorable song in the first act is the opener, The Candy Man – that being because many of us remember it as Sammy Davis, Jr.’s 1972 hit that came from the 1971 movie, Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  As it turns out, that song and the other three songs of the evening that are even close to being interesting are not from the composer and lyricist of this 2017 Broadway musical (Marc Shaiman, music, who also collaborated with Scott Wittiman on lyrics), but are instead all from that original movie and are by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley.  If not for some fantastically funny puppetry in that second act and several well-deserved, devilishly hilarious disasters for four, over-grown, over-spoiled brats, the entire evening would have been not much better than a yawn. 

Noah Weisberg & Company
With his opening number, “The Candy Man,” Willie Wonka announces, “I make chocolate ... the greatest invention of the history of the world.”  But it seems the young-looking Willie is not all he appears and is in fact very old and very tired of making chocolate in the formidable factory overlooking the town.  Willie is out to find his successor and creates a contest to draw five potential inheritors to a first-time-ever tour of the now-dormant factory.  His placing five golden tickets in five chocolate bars (with a promised grand prize among the five of free chocolate for life) causes a world-wide “Wonkamania,” with kids and their parents globally emptying candy shelves of the chocolate that is now once again being madly manufactured by Wonka’s workers.  Willie’s unannounced plan is that the winners are to be invited to the factory for what he has planned as a test of their true characters, with a plan that the last one left standing (literally) will become his successor as The Candyman.

Noah Weisberg’s Willie is a mixture of a carnival huckster, mad scientist, and song-and-dance man.  He sings his numbers not with great Broadway wow but with his own twist of flash and flair that makes it easy for us to listen and play along with him, even when most of his numbers are not all that interesting music-wise.  And while he is by appearance a squeaky-clean-looking character, his inside morals are certainly questionable as he mostly shrugs off to dismayed parents when their kids one-by-one fail his tempting character tests (and totally disappear).  But in the end, his Willie still somehow convinces us that his intentions are good – especially when it comes to our young hero, Charlie.

Henry Boshart
Youngster Charlie Bucket lives in a barely-standing shack with his impoverished mom (a laundress about to be out of work) and his four grandparents, who appear never to leave the bed they share on the second, wobbly floor.  Charlie is candy-obsessed and loves hanging out at a local chocolate store, run by none other than a disguised Willie Wonka.  Charlie is a dreamer like his Grandpa Joe (James Young) who constantly recalls imaginatively when he was a travel agent for Mr. Lewis and Mr. Clark, on a rhino hunt with Mr. Livingston, or with Mr. Custer in his dying moments at Little Big Horn.  Grandpa Joe sings with a gleam in his eye, “Charlie, you and I make something out of nothing,” something Charlie’s hard-working but mostly penny-less mom (Amanda Rose) warns, “Charlie, it’s not good daydreaming about something if it can’t come true.” 

Charlie loves his mom, but he is inspired by and is out of the same ilk as his Grandpa.  So imagine and dream Charlie does (played opening night by Henry Boschart with Henry sharing the part with Collin Jeffery and Rueby Wood).  Charlie sends requests in a wistful song (“A Letter from Charlie Bucket”) and a magically flying paper plane to Mr. Wonka for sweet presents for the ones he loves most (licorice shoe laces and ice cream that never melts for his mom, marshmallow pillows for his grandparents).  Henry Boshart, fresh off his tour of Fun Home, brings vocal freshness, attractive energy and enthusiasm, and a winning smile and personality – completely selling himself to us (and in the end, to Willie) as a kid whose imagination is almost as big as his heart and the one deserving to be a candy king.

The Cast
The other kids we meet during Act One – all played by adults – have some common qualities just the opposite of everything we see in Charlie: spoiled, obnoxious, stuck-up, ego-centric, bad manners – just to name a few of the more obvious ones.  They are each introduced with their equally bizarre and overall ridiculously despicable parents as they each find a ‘golden ticket’ in four production numbers, all mostly forgettable by the time each song-and dance ends.  There is the overly obese from his mountainous intakes of Bavarian sausages, Augustus Gloop (a big burping Matt Wood); a self-centered Russian ballerina covered in pink furs and frills, Veruca Salt (a squealing Jessica Cohen with always raised nose and on tippy toes); a bubble-gun-smacking, self-proclaimed diva (“Queen of Pop” Brynn Williams); and screen-staring, gamer and hacker Mike Teevee (a scowling, belligerent Daniel Quadrino).  There is some humor in the exaggerations depicted by each during their introductions, but the real laughs and most inventive ideas of Jack O’Brien’s direction come in the second half when each meets her/his final demise as they fail to heed Willie’s warnings about such things as chocolate waterfalls or giant, nut-sorting squirrels.

If there is one reason that truly makes an outing to this touring production worth while, it is the second act’s appearance in five of the eight numbers by the “Oompa Loompas,” a chorus line of three-foot-high workers who make all of Willie Wonka’s confectionaries.  The puppet and illusion design of Basil Twist (which won him a Drama Desk award in 2017) transforms the Loompas’ full-size handlers into these midget-size, dancing, singing stars of the evening, sending the audience into loud howls of laughter and long rounds of appreciative applause.  Their crazy leaps, kick lines, and tumbles as well as their munchkin-sounding singing are only made funnier by the red-mop-topped heads of the real people who are otherwise diminutive puppets.  It is with their short-legged dancing that Joshua Bergasse’s choreography finds its best steps of the evening.

Along with James Young’s winning characterization of Grandpa Joe, the one-liners afforded the other three grandparents by book writer David Grieg are an ongoing thread of giggles.  From their crowded bed where it appears they have no legs (part of Mark Thompson’s pop-up-like, storybook scenic design), the oldsters offer forth such numerous quickies like “Hope we don’t die in our sleep” during a series of mutual ‘good nights’ and “Are we still here?” when waking in the morning.  Claire Neumann is Grandma Georgina, Jennifer Jill Malenke is Grandma Josephine, and Joel Newsome is Grandpa George.

If not for the Oompa Loompas and the dark, grisly, but totally hilarious exits of the four obnoxious kids, this touring Charlie and the Chocolate Factory might not be worth the visit, even given the fine performances by Willie, Charlie, and the grandparents.  The music rarely rises above mediocre and the first act is a near sleeper.  But, stay awake; and the second act becomes a true winner, almost as fun as the evening’s optical-illusion-packed, multi-layered, and stage-surrounding projections by Jeff Sugg – the final and well-worth reason to grab a bar of chocolate (you will be craving one) and head to the Golden Gate Theatre for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Rating: 3.5 E

Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory continues through May 12, 2019 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.

Photo Credits:  Joan Marcus


Tuesday, April 16, 2019

"A Spoonful of Sugar"


A Spoonful of Sherman
Richard Sherman, Robert B. Sherman, Al Sherman & Robert J. Sherman (Music & Lyrics)
Robert J. Sherman (Book)

The Cast of A Spoonful of Sugar
In a heartfelt biographical and musical tribute to his grandfather, dad, and uncle, A Spoonful of Sherman, Robert (Robbie) J. Sherman (book) takes us through a ninety-year tasting of fifty-five of the songs his family – including himself – have written, picking them from the more than 250 others he could not include.  Premiering in the U.K. in 2014 and having since toured extensively there and in Ireland, A Spoonful of Sherman now has its U.S. premiere at San Jose’s newest venue for live productions of musicals, Guggenheim Entertainment’s 3Below Theatres and Lounge.  With a cast of five who sing, dance, and cavort with much talent and glee through the plethora of lyrics and tunes, 3Below’s A Spoonful of Sherman is overall delightful and a temptation for humming/singing along that is difficult to resist – songs like “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Winnie the Pooh,” “That’s What Friends Are For,” “I Wanna Be Like You,” “Spoonful of Sugar,” and of course the world’s more translated and most performed song, “It’s A Small World.”

For my complete review, please continue to Talkin' Broadway: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj162.html.


Rating: 4 E

A Spoonful of Sherman continues through May 5, Thursdays through Sundays at 3 Below Theatres & Lounge, 288 South Second Street, San Jose.  Tickets are available online at https://3belowtheaters.com/.

Photo by Guggenheim Entertainment


 

Sunday, April 14, 2019

"The Gentleman Caller"


The Gentleman Caller
Philip Dawkins

Brennan Pickman-Thoon & Adam Niemann
“I don’t like interviewers for the very reason they remind me of what I once said,” he says in his syrupy, Southern flow of clever quips.  But a favorable interview is very much what young, boy-looking Tom Williams (“Tennessee for short”) is hoping to receive from the awkward, fumbling, but rather cute drama critic of the St. Louis Star-Times as Tennessee arrives at the reporter’s apartment in early November, 1944.  Tennessee has already sent the critic a carbon copy of his play soon to open in Chicago – one with a working title of The Gentlemen Caller – and hopes to get needed, positive press from this afternoon visit.  But William (Bill) Inge has not actually read the play; seems more intent on pouring himself another drink than in asking another question; and within a few minutes liquors himself into enough courage to try to rape the flirty, flattered, but not-quite-ready-to-go-that-far Tennessee.

Brennan Pickman-Thoon & Adam Niemann
And thus opens Philip Dawkins’ own The Gentleman Caller in which he imagines two meetings over two months time between one young playwright whose re-titled The Glass Menagerie is about to make him the new darling of the theatre world and a non-confident critic who is on a desperate quest to become a playwright himself.  The repartee between the two is hilarious and titillating to observe – driven in great part by the non-stop, cunningly constructed comebacks of Tennessee to anything the slower-responding Bill tries to say in attempted sentences that seem never to reach completion.  New Conservatory Theatre Center presents the regional premiere of this 2018 play in a production bursting with talent in every regard but particularly in the tense, teasing, and testy direction that Arturo Catricala lends the two actors who excel in capturing personalities that bump and grind along until they finally gel into a relationship of respect and friendship (and maybe even love).

Tennessee is the story’s narrator, quickly establishing an easy-going, wink-wink manner with the near-by audience in the intimate setting of NCTC’s Walker Theatre.  Brennan Pickman-Thoon quickly has us in the palms of his flighty hands with his delicious, hypnotic drawl that is of a Shakespearean quality in a Southern sort of way – a combination of vocal ebbs and flows that elevate that region’s oft-mimicked, oft-mocked accent to a level surprisingly beautiful and mesmerizing (with special kudos going to Melinda Marks for her dialect coaching). 

 Adam Niemann & Brennan Pickman-Thoon
But he also brings a cutting edge to the acutely sharp, ever-catchy script that Philip Dawkins provides Tennessee.  When Bill Inge at one point tells Tennessee, “You’re too bitch for me,” the latter shoots back, “That’s like the pot calling the kettle Blanche,” one of several references to plays he has written or will someday write.  In one of the many times his Tennessee makes a side remark to us as audience in reference to something he or Bill has said, he tells us that we will not see Bill’s barking dog Lulabelle running about on the stage because “you should never work with children and animals ... or Bette Davis ... who is both.”  Brennan Pickman-Thoon alone is worth the price of the ticket in order to revel in his delightfully wicked, incredibly insightful interpretation of the early, wonderfully raw version of this later giant of American theatre.

The thirty-three-year-old Tennessee before us is a slight-of-build, somewhat dramatic diva with just enough hip swish to hint at but never enough to scream of his sexual orientation.  In contrast, the slightly younger Bill is rather ancient-appearing as he lumbers, almost stumbles his way around the room, stopping and starting both his physical approaches toward Tennessee and his broken conversations with abruptness.  His emotional expressions go from near nil to full, volcanic explosions in a matter of seconds, with little warning or reason why.  He is a young man caught in a time and a location when being open – even to himself – of his desires for other men is more than he can bear acknowledging openly, leading to desires pent up that suddenly explode in exaggerated passions and then quickly retreat in horror and shame. 

Adam Niemann is outstanding in his capturing the difficulty of facing one’s sexual orientation in a world that would be eager to crucify you in headlines and ruin you forever once the word got out.  He is even better in showing us a playwright-in-the-making who hesitantly comes to the altar of his newfound god, Tennessee, hoping for his blessing but expecting his rejection.  But he is at his best in Act Two when Philip Dawkins awards him a monologue about a life-shaping incident as a boy that Adam Niemann delivers in a gripping, near-monotone fashion, yet one full of deeply hidden emotion that leaves the audience (and even Tennessee) barely breathing during its telling.

During the two meetings of Tennessee and Bill – the earlier in St. Louis and the latter in Chicago after the opening night of The Glass Menagerie – Philip Dawkins leads the two protagonists through topics that allow Tennessee to mentor a reluctant Bill bit by bit through both wit and wisdom what it means to “engage your imagination, the most endangered of American qualities.”  When they meet, Bill both admires and is skeptical of a profession where a person like Tennessee “force[s] the audience into your stories and do what you want them to do.”  While Inge believes that Williams is “the maker of dreams,” Tennessee denies any lofty desire to “change the world” as a playwright, quipping, “I just want to live a life of epic fornifications.”  But writing for Tennessee is clearly his purpose in life and one he is trying to help the young, untested William Inge to understand is a reason to keep on living, even when feeling alone and miserable.  For Tennessee, writing is the end-all, telling Bill, “What is point of being loved for my writing if I can love through my writing.”

Brennan Pickman-Thoon & Adam Niemann
The two meetings also afford a sexually intense dance to occur where Tennessee is tempting and wanting and where Bill sometimes longingly wants and other times rushes to escape.  In a scene involving Bill with a pair of binoculars, a lesbian couple across the alley way in front of an open-curtained window, and a Tennessee whose hands and toes probe ever downward over Bill’s torso as Bill describes between his hot panting what he sees going on between the love-making women – in that one scene Arturo Catricala directs one of the most hotly erotic and beautifully executed scenes I have ever witnessed in live theatre.  For many in the audience, that scene was probably the one worth the price of the ticket!

With walls papered in the scripts of Tennessee Williams’ plays, Kevin Landesman has created the rooms of an apartment and a hotel that have a cozy, intimate feel and that offer the desired safety for the 1944 conversations (and more) between these two men.  The lighting design of Chris Lundahl casts telling, shadowed patterns on the floor to underline shifts in the story’s mood as well as effectively using wall sconces and focused spots to shift those moods.  Kalon Thibodeaux’s sound design, among other gems, ensures a record always sticks at precisely the correct moments for the best of humor.  The costumes of Keri Fitch broadcast the outwardly straight and inwardly straight-laced nature of William Inge while doing just the opposite about both natures of Tennessee Williams. 

Philip Dawkins has taken an actual relationship between two of America’s greatest, twentieth-century playwrights – a known friendship and a rumored romantic attraction – and created a fascinating, enlightening, and totally entertaining accounting of two, fictionalized encounters behind closed doors whose walls tell no secrets.  In the brilliant hands of this director, these two actors, and this creative team, New Conservatory Theatre Center’s staging of The Gentleman Caller is two hours where every minute matches our narrator’s Second Act opening description: “There is a sense all around of something about to happen.”

Rating: 5 E

The Gentleman Caller continues through May 5, 2019 in the Walker Theatre of 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


Tuesday, April 9, 2019

"Adiós Mamá Carlota"


Adiós Mamá Carlota
Luis Valdez
The Stage in association with El Teatro Campesino


Alison F. Rich and Will Springhorn, Jr.
Luis Valdez and El Teatro Campesino partner with The Stage to premiere a play about a short, little known period of Mexican history when the younger brother, Maximilian I, of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph was named in 1864 by Napoleon III to be Emperor of Mexico, a country France had earlier invaded (along with Spain and the UK).  Adiós Mamá Carlota tells this rather bizarre and ultimately tragic story – for both Mexico and Maximilian – from the perspective of the new Emperor’s wife, Carlota, who ruled with him for two years as Empress before escaping back to Europe where she remained apparently insane and largely in isolation for the next sixty years.  Luis Valdez gives voice in Adiós Mamá Carlota to the ghosts of Carlota’s memories as they come back to haunt her and retell their versions of her and her executed husband’s coronation, reign, and demise.

Please continue to Talkin' Broadway for my complete review: https://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj161.html.


Rating: 3 E

Adiós Mamá Carlota continues through April 28, 2019 The Stage, 490 First Street, San Jose.  Tickets are available at www.thestage.org.

Photo Credit: Dave Lepori
 

Monday, April 8, 2019

"Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story"


Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story
Hershey Felder

Hershey Felder
The mesmerizing music lures its listeners into a state of relaxed contemplation of the chalk-drawn scenes of the City of Lights that splash one by one on the projected, stage-filling blackboard behind him.  At the piano, we imagine for a moment that the great French composer whose music gave voice to the impressionistic artistic movement of his period – Claude Debussy – is actually in our presence as his fingers glide over the keyboard and his body sways with an emotional pull hypnotic to watch.  But we actually know that the man before us is the incomparable Hershey Felder, the now-darling of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley and Bay Area audiences who returns for the fourth straight year yet again to portray another of the world’s greatest composers – this time of Claude Debussy in the world premiere of his created and solo-performed Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story.

For my complete review, please continue to Talkin' Broadwayhttps://www.talkinbroadway.com/page/regional/sanjose/sj160.html.

Rating: 4.5 E

Hershey Felder: A Paris Love Story continues through May 5, 2019 in a world premiere production by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View.  Tickets are available online at http://www.theatreworks.org/box-office/ or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday – Friday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Saturday – Sunday, Noon – 6 p.m.

Photo Credits: Christopher Ash

Friday, April 5, 2019

"The Jungle"


The Jungle
Joe Murphy & Joe Robertson

Jonathan Nyati, Tommy Letts & Ammar Haj Ahmad
One young woman tells how she walked 3000 miles just to get to the Mediterranean, still a sea and a continent away from her destination.  An Iraqi with a guitar sings a song and relates how this song moved the hearts of guards to let him and 200 others cross a closed border.  A twenty-something man – his body racked with scars from torture – stands statuesque with a single river of tears dripping to his chest while relating in almost monotone voice of six days, six nights in a hellacious truck crossing the Sahara.  A boy barely man mentions how he waited in hiding three days at the French border with no food, only to be found and severely beaten by French police.  And all around the crowded café, men and women hold up phones to show videos of being crammed onto rubber dinghies and leaking rafts, sent across the Mediterranean on journeys their paid smugglers never made with them, since survival was not likely for many.

And in today’s San Francisco Chronicle – several years after these stories occurred – a headline declares that 64 rescued migrants are still in the Mediterranean with countries like Malta and Italy refusing to let their boat land.  Another day, the number in a headline was 122; another day, 76.  Behind each such headline of one number are separate, different stories like the ones above; yet most of us only see that overall number while glancing at the headline, maybe taking a moment to think/say, “How terrible for those poor people” before checking to see if the Giants finally won last night or not.

The power of The Jungle is that never again will anyone who enters Salar’s Restaurant in the completely transformed Curran Theatre – never again will that person look at one of these headlines without seeing the tear-stained face of Okot; without hearing the voices of Helene, Norullah, or Safi; without remembering Little Amal as she wanders among us with a smile so innocent and so heart-breaking. 

Two young British men went in 2015 to the shanty-town of tents and flimsy structures built on a landfill near Calais, France that became known as The Jungle – a location from which the thousands of stranded refugees from twenty-five countries hoped that tonight there might be a “good chance” (the first two English words many learned) to hop on a ferry at the nearby port or onto a traffic-stopped lorry on the near-by highway in order to cross the Channel.  It is across that Channel that all residents of The Jungle could see the White Cliffs of Dover and the country they all sought to enter for safety, jobs, medical help, and a better life. 

Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson were those two, young, British arrivals who took their own experiences as actors forming a theatre for the refugees as well as the stories of the people they met in order to create a fully immersive, theatrical experience bearing the same name as the multi-nation, multi-culture community that existed from January 2015 to October 2016.  That production of The Jungle from the Good Chance, National, and Young Vic Theatres now arrives on tour in San Francisco at The Curran, ready to change our lives forever in the way we think about, care about, and hopefully do something about the migrants of the world who become desperately stranded refugees.  How could The Jungle make a more timely arrival in San Francisco than in 2019’s Trump-America?

There are two ways to experience the two hours, forty-five minutes visit to Salar’s Restaurant, the center of communal life in the Jungle.  One is to sit in the mezzanine above, now made much closer after the orchestra and loge sections have been covered by a dirt and saw-dust-covered floor and after the balcony above has been hidden by a giant tent that serves as the ceiling of the entire setting.  The other way is to enter below through the small storage rooms and the kitchen of the Afghani restaurant – one that actually did exist and received a “4-star” review from a London newspaper – and then to sit on rows of long benches at the narrow tables or to recline along the wall on pillows.  Raised platforms crisscross among the guests and serve as the stage that is only inches away from many of the restaurant’s now-packed audience members.

John Pfumojena
Sitting in the restaurant itself, one is part of the hubbub of people constantly coming and going among us -- sometimes offering us milky chai; sometimes stopping to chat; often climbing between, over, and around us to get through the crowded venue.  We cringe at the heated, shout-filled passions of two opposing views of how to run the community.  We hold metal bowls for a drummer joyfully to play his native beats while we also hold quickly distributed towels to avoid the “tear gas” of invading police.  Inches away a woman kneels praying as her tears draw our tears; and next to us, we smell the hot breath of a panting boy who has been running like mad to escape a fellow refugee’s wrath.  And all around us, a united community of mixed nations and religions forms as Shiites and Sunnis, as Christians and Muslims, and as those white and those black realize that “If we are to live together, we must stand together.”

Ben Turner & Ammar Haj Ahmad
Our evening begins at the end of the story, with the sound of bulldozers rocking the restaurant around us, with riot-geared police bursting in with their clubs and tear gas, and with the 3455 refugees (including 455 children, 305 unaccompanied) having just lost their court appeal to stop the French-led eviction.  When the action then flashes back to March 2015 – two months after the initial refugee arrivals – already the restaurant that Salar (Ben Turner) has built has become the hub where the residents meet to argue policies, form committees, and vote on everything from the name of their city-of-sorts to the response to make to the threatened evictions.

Ammar Haj Ahmad
The question that Safi (Ammar Haj Ahmad) – our occasional narrator and one of The Jungle’s more respected voices – stops action to pose to us is, “When does a place become a place?”  He answers his next ponder of “When does a place become home?” by noting that along with Salar’s Restaurant, there are already in March 2015 are hairdressers, dentists, small stores, a church, and even a theatre dotting the Jungle’s barren landscape. 

One of the other things the community gathers to decide by vote is whether to accept the aid of sudden-arriving Brits who have come on their own to help.  After all, as Salar reminds the gathered community, “They [the Brits] go to places they are not wanted and tell people what to do.”

Jonathan Nyati, Ammar Haj Ahmad, Dominic Rowan & Tommy Letts
By late 2015, there are hundreds of plastic-covered, plank-framed homes – many arranged in neighborhoods by native country – all part of the vision and ingenuity of an eighteen-year-old, passion-filled Brit, looking a bit like Harry Potter and named Sam (Tommy Letts).  The houses are also due to the organizing/building know-how of a beer-loving, banjo-picking geezer from Newcastle (Boxer played by Trevor Fox), who declares upon entering Salar’s, “I’ve come to fix things.” 

Rachel Redford
Carrying his environmentally correct ‘Greenshop’ gear, a Brit named Derek (Dominic Rowan) also bursts with a flair into the restaurant to apologize “on behalf of my country,” soon offering “to build the new Jerusalem.”  Sometimes hot-headed, always deeply caring Beth (Rachel Redford) is here to teach English to these hopeful citizens of her country while rough-shod, no-bullshit Paula is here because “Fuck knows where Save the Children Are.”  The passions of those there to help often clash in mighty battles of do-good ideas and goals – sometimes with those they are trying to help, but more often among themselves.  Along with the bone-chilling, heart-stopping stories we hear from the refugees themselves, we also gain new insights about the drivers, the intents, and the hearts – all overall good – of the folks who step forward from their own homes to help those who no longer have a home.

Zara Rasti & Khaled Zahabi
Within minutes, the members of this cast cease to be actors in roles and are instead real people with huge investments in their own and others’ safety, well-being, and dreams.  (In fact, several members of the cast were once inhabitants of The Jungle, being refugees themselves who were among the lucky to reach the UK.)  John Pfumojena leaves an image never to be forgotten as Okot, the man who stands before us to tell his story of the Sahara truck escape and the ensuing tortures.  Nahel Tzegai is Helene, a devout Christian among so many fellow followers of Islam, whose beautiful soul wins her many friends and new family.  Khaled Zahabi is a big-smiling prankster and talented pickpocket named Narullah whose smile and eagerness to please wins over Salar the restaurant owner, who in turn makes the boy his Number Two and almost his son.  Norullah has an early big-time run-in with Mustafa (Moses M. Sesay) that almost becomes a two-person race war, but the two soon bond into brothers where differing nationalities and skin color are forgotten.  Zara Rasti is the adorable Little Amal who steals everyone’s heart in Salar’s café (including all of ours); Jonathan Nyati is the wise-speaking, level-headed Mohammed; and Milan Tajmiri is Omid whose angel-like voice and softly strummed guitar won him and the 200 others an impossible border crossing.

Along with these and other, equally compelling refugees, we also meet a money-hungry, heartless smuggler named Ali (Rachid Sabitri), who prefers to call himself “a freedom fighter.”  Alexander Devrient takes on several roles, from a vicious French guard to Henri, a French government official who explains (in my paraphrased version) to Sam why he wants to evict those in The Jungle:  ‘I don’t want to go bed at night to give someone in Syria hope to get on a boat in order to get a good life here.’

The Setting in The Curran
The incredible transformation of the Curran, as designed and orchestrated by Miriam Buether as set designer, must be seen to be believed (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xka8veAE4rc).  The realism of nationalities and personalities is greatly enabled by the costume designs of Catherine Kodicek.  Paul Arditti’s sound design literally at times rattles our bones and fills us with dread of the approaching bulldozers while the lighting of Jon Clark helps ensure we are all a member of this café’s community while also zeroing us into a focus of one person’s gripping story and pain.

But not enough can be said about the mastery of direction by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin.  How does one even envision the placement, movement, and realistic events that occur by such a large and diverse cast among the couple hundred theatre-goers who crowd the very stage on which multiple entrances and exits from all directions, dances and fights, silhouetted stories and crowd-packed meetings all play out?  Grand kudos goes to both co-directors!

Seeing the The Jungle is not a passive experience.  Whether sitting above or in the midst of the action, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson demand that each of us becomes an active, temporary inhabitant of this once-vibrant community.  Only as such can we walk away forever changed by stories we realize are never ever two the same.  No matter how many headlines we do see in the future that summarize the latest boat or border crisis into one number, we will now finally realize that the sum does not tell the the many individual stories crying out to be heard.

Rating: 5 E, “MUST-SEE”

The Jungle continues through May 19, 2019 at Curran Theatre,  445 Geary Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at https://sfcurran.com/ or by calling the Box Office at 415-358-1220 between 10 a.m. and 6 pm. Monday through Friday.

Photo Credits: Little Fang

Thursday, April 4, 2019

'In Old Age"


In Old Age
Mfoniso Udofia


Steven Anthony Jones & Nancy Moricette
For those of us who first met Nigerian immigrant Abasiama Ekpeyoung as a young woman in Houston and have watched her through the happy and troubled times of her long life by seeing some or all of the four prior plays of Mfoniso Udofia’s “Ufot Family Cycle,” seeing her now as an old woman in the playwright’s latest In Old Age and knowing it is probably her farewell to us as a living being is both bittersweet and sad.  For those attending the Magic Theatre world premiere and meeting Abasiama for the first time, the experience is still a deeply affecting, mysteriously magical, and joyously honoring look at a time in a person’s life when confronting and coming to terms with old demons is the necessary precursor for a well-deserved period of peaceful satisfaction with one’s remaining days.

On a battered couch curiously with no legs, we find the elderly Abasiama curled under various quilts and wraps in a house that is clearly in disrepair.  One would never know it is spring outside as we see the old lady clothed in heavy sweater, scarf, and a knitted cap from which her disheveled, white hair peeks through in wild, knotted strands.  Gospel music plays from a large, console TV whose screen is invisible to us, interrupted by a persistently louder knocking coming from her front door.

Steven Anthony Jones & Nancy Moricette
Only with reluctance and much strained movement speaking probably of old age’s arthritis and stiff joints, Abasiama slowly makes her way to open the door to an elderly African-American man in worker’s boots; with big, toothy smile; and full of eagerness to talk – none of which the silent, sullen Abasiama appears to like at all.  At first not seeming to notice and then trying to ignore her unwelcoming stare, Azell Abernathy explains that he has been sent by Abasiama’s children to repair her house, beginning with her floor (which obviously to him and to us is in deep need of fixing).  No matter how much he tries to elaborate, her silence and blank stares only grow louder until she finally asks, “What kind of ... What sort of man are you?”

And thus begins a relationship between these two that pits two old souls stubborn and often stuck in the idiosyncracies they have built over a long life as well as in histories with some still-secret chapters dark and troubling.  She has no tolerance for work boots in her house; he refuses to work barefoot or in a lady’s slippers.  She wants the job he is to do done in two weeks; he knows it will take a month.  He likes to start work at 10; her demands leave him no choice but to be there at 6.  He arrives at 6; she sleeps so sound that his pounding takes her a half hour to hear, leaving him furious.  He gets mad; she looks with cocked head at him and says little to anything.  She then gets mad with sudden shouting and ranting; he says a prayer, “Lord ... if you got one ounce of love still reserved for me, you’ll get me out of here sooner rather than later.”  And all along the way, she keeps asking him, “What kind of man are you?”

But when he lays the first few panel of red, cherry planks on her floor, something happens that Azell nor we have not yet seen from Abasiama:  A smile.  Not the big, face-filling kind that Azell flashes, but one barely noticeable yet so revealing.  As she plays “peek-a-boo” with the new cherry corner of the room, Abasiama slips out, “Maybe this can be good” – a hope with several levels of meaning that the amazed and obviously pleased Azell cannot yet understand.

But what we in the audience already know is that there is a third character in Mfoniso Udofia’s play that is unseen and unheard by Azell but very much present for her – and for us.  From the other side of the kitchen’s basement door – a door that forebodingly locks from the inside – come knocks and pounds that are like a Morse Code of warning messages to the old woman.  When she hears them, her manner goes from a disturbing disquiet to one where her whole being shakes with dreaded terror.  The house itself seems to be an entity with secrets of a past that haunt her daily – and especially nightly – with the TV’s gospel music seemingly her only solace.  But in those few panels of cherry wood and maybe in this man who is here to lay them, she seems to have some slight hope that “it will stop and I will have ...”

Nancy Moricette
Nancy Moricette is astonishingly uncanny in her abilities to portray volumes about Abasiama – her present and her past, her aches and her hopes, her moments of peace and her moments of horror – all often without uttering a word.  When she does speak aloud, the range of volume, tone, and intensity is mind-boggling that she uses to project her Nigerian accent – still heavy after many decades in the U.S.  Her deeply hollowed eyes, her age-bent body, her struggled but fast-paced steps, and that ability to make silence so comprehensible are just a few of the many masterful touches that Ms. Moricette employs to create an Abasiama so worthy of all the ones who have preceded her in the Ufot Cycle.

Likewise, Steven Anthony Jones – a face and voice so familiar and beloved by Bay Area theatre audiences – may be giving us a performance of a lifetime as he chuckles, grunts, growls, and explodes his way through the various sides of Azell that we meet.  Through it all, a heart bigger than his giant, lumbering self emerges but one that also weighs with evident heaviness over a past that has left its deep scars on him.  While he may not hear pounding from the basement as does Abasiama, her question of “What kind of man are you?” clearly begins to have its intended, come-to-the-altar effect on him.

Steven Anthony Jones & Nancy Moricette
Together, this couple becomes a beautiful portrait of what it means to be in the latter days of one’s life with someone who has come to understand you to the core, especially the inner darkness that you for too long have faced alone during sleepless nights.  Together, they also remind us what it is like to be with someone where words are often not at all necessary and yet where so much continues to be said.  The power of Mfoniso Udofia’s script is so often in the penned words we do not hear spoken but we still are privileged to listen as they are being so clearly expressed.

Along with playwright and actors, Victor Malana Maog as director deserves tons of credit for orchestrating this beautifully moving story through its many ups and downs of emotions and energies, through surreal moments that feel so real as to catch our breathes, and through major transitions that are surprising without ever being too startling.  The set by Andrew Boyce gives us just enough detail of this long-neglected house and its wooded setting but still leave enough to our imaginations to let the characters and script fill in the rest.  One of the major transformations of the story occur during a final, visible scene change, and here the set designer pulls a rabbit out of the hat that draws gasps from an amazed audience.

Much of the story’s mystery, edginess, and bone-chilling effects are due to the sound design of Sara Huddleston, who in fact is the voice of the play’s third character, the house itself.  When partnered with the incredible effects of lighting designer York Kennedy, the dread of a flashing electric storm and its torrents of rain and the redeeming joy of a dawn with its bright sun in a sky filled with the sounds of birds both take their places in making this Magic Theatre production a show to live up to the company’s given name.  The magnificently designed props of Randy Wong-Westbrooke take the center stage at a major turning point in Abasiama’s coming to grips with her past while the costumes designed by Courtney Flores helping us to get to know this old man and woman and for them equally to learn much about each other at their first glances.

A world premiere is not often already as near a state of perfection as is this Magic Theatre unveiling of the next chapter of Mfoniso Udofia’s “Ufot Family Cycle.”  Every written word, silent moment, actor’s intent, and production element of Magic’s In Old Age join together to inspire us all to do whatever is necessary in our own lives – no matter how scary and painful – to face and cleanse the ugly parts of our past in order make room for the healing of another’s love.

Rating: 5 E

In Old Age continues through April 21, 2019 at Fort Mason Center, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online www.magictheatre.org or by calling the box office at (415) 441-8822.

Photos by Jennifer Reiley