Monday, March 30, 2015

"Say Cheese: My Life in Front of a Camera"

Say Cheese: My Life in Front of a Camera
Leslie Jordan

At only 4’11”, actor and playwright Leslie Jordan has no problem commanding on his own an entire stage and theatre.  From his opening, Southern-drawl line to his final bow, he is in charge and pulling every string possible to draw almost constant laughter from his adoring, mostly gay audience. 

In his latest one-person ‘memoir,’
Say Cheese, Mr. Jordan takes us through all the ‘sordid’ details of his various relationships, particularly his several live-in, ‘straight’ escorts whom he meets at Atlanta’s Swinging Richards, a male strip club catering to mostly gay men.  Illustrated by large photographs of these hunky, unclothed giants (he likes ‘em tall), the descriptions and dimensions we see and hear more about leave little to our imagination.  Each tale, in true Leslie Jordan style, takes many circuitous side-trail journeys to reach its end.  We hear of addictions, recoveries, sexual fantasies and frustrations as well as of trips together, hotel hilarities, and personal observations and wisdoms about scores of subjects and people.  The ways the stories are told are often funnier than the stories themselves.  Mr. Jordan is a true Southern Belle, employing every Deep-South expression, mannerism, and phrase possible.  Anyone from the South (I happen to be a fellow Tennessean) particularly can find special humor and private chuckles in remembering similar-in-our-backgrounds people and circumstances like that ones Mr. Jordan is throwing at us by the bushels – references that others in the audience probably totally miss.

While we as audience can barely catch our breaths from laughing, I felt at the end of the show like I needed to go wash my hands or take a shower.  Not only is this show over the top in terms of blue, XXX humor (which is actually OK with me), it is actually a pretty sad story, if true.  What we are hearing from this man that many of us have loved and celebrated for years in movies, TV, the stage, and comedy clubs is that his life has been right out of National Enquirer.  We hear in hilarious anecdotes about a life where love and even sexual fulfillment have been largely absent.  I often thought of Emett Kelley as the show progressed.  Here is this clown-like person (which is how he entered the show dressed) whose happiness seems largely painted on and not backed up with much believability once the jokes are removed from his story.  Even in the end when he does in two minutes say that he has finally found his soul-mate in the past year, we hear no details, see no picture, and leave somewhat unconvinced.   

What I left wondering is why he needed to tell us this entire narrative at all.  What is he or we gaining once the laughter has died down.  I did not walk away with any learning or insight about myself or about relationships (gay or straight).  I got to cackle a lot, but I frankly did not feel great about all that fun and frivolity after my final smile diminished.  I found myself a bit sad as I walked back to my car to head home.

I have absolutely loved other Leslie Jordan stage shows.  After this one, however, I am not convinced I would sign up for another one any time soon.

Rating: 2 E’s

"The Last Five Years"

The Last Five Years
Jason Robert Brown (music & lyrics)

The widely popular, much-produced, two-person musical The Last Five Years (music and lyrics by Broadway veteran Jason Robert Brown) came recently to San Francisco in a concert version for three performances only.  Even after just one performance, social media sites lit up with “You have to go tomorrow to see…”  Supported by an excellent, on-stage orchestra, two actors, Adam Kantor as Jamie and Betsy Wolfe as Cathy, sing a story of love found, love solidified in marriage, and then love lost as their two careers and lives go in opposite directions.  What makes this telling so unique is that each half of this couple tells the story from opposite timeline beginnings.  Cathy starts at the sad end of their five years when the break-up is imminent; Adam, at the exuberant beginning as he prepares for their first date. 

The stories proceed with their separate ups and downs, only meeting once as the actual vows are declared.  We watch the emotions and moods of the two ends of the relationship unfold before us.  When Cathy is ‘still hurting’ in the opening song, Jamie’s opening is all about his excitement over his new ‘shiksa goddess’ girlfriend.  What is interesting in this staging is that each actor continues to watch and react to the other’s, opposite-end story.  Even when Cathy is hurting as the relationship is collapsing, she can then smile and seemingly remember the good times that Jamie is relating as he is telling the beginning of their story.  Later as he is having lots of doubts and frustrations, he can laugh silently on the side and look lovingly at her as she tells her version of how it all began.

Mr. Brown’s lyrics and music are the stars of this show.  All emotions of dating, moving in together, deciding to marry, dealing with career issues and triumphs, doubts about self and partner, and suffering through increasing conflicts and ultimate disillusion are captured in songs that are appropriately snappy, funny, grand, aching, and haunting.  Even in concert format, the exuberance and the torments of Cathy and Jamie are deeply felt by us all as we really do get to know a lot about these two people and how they are so very different.  We easily begin to see parallels to our own histories of convoluted mixtures of love and ambition, of ego and loyalty, of blind trust and obvious betrayal. 

Of course what sells Mr. Brown’s songs and musical are two outstanding singers who can also act convincingly.  Few complaints are possible about the amazing voices and delivery of Ms. Wolfe or Mr. Kantor.  The one minor fault is that Ms. Wolfe seemed too quick and too often to belt, even blast her numbers.  As the concert/play progressed, this tendency became a bit tiring and too expected.

In the end/beginning of this musical, we as audience once again understand that no relationship break-up is all black and white and that regret is usually shared in the end as much as love is in the beginning.  These stories are both tragic and familiar.  That is probably why The Last Five Years continues to draw audiences to many theatres across the nation.

Rating:  5 E’s

Friday, March 27, 2015

"Present Tense"

Present Tense
Alan Olejniczak
At Last Productions and Playwrights Center of San Francisco

Over a 24-hour period, the world premiere Present Tense gives us slice-of-life glimpses into five family situations – all unrelated, but all highly similar thematically.  Each takes place real-time for fifteen or so minutes, with the ‘present tense’ of each highly shadowed by histories of turbulent relationships and events and foreshadowed by uncertain futures.  In each, the tension is high, made so by revelations and remembrances and by fears of what may or may not happen next. 

There is immediate familiarity and audience empathy as these stories unfold:  a son caring for his aging father with early Alzheimer’s, parents meeting with a teacher about a son who is not doing well in school, parents worried about a daughter’s rocky maybe abusive relationship with her husband, a mother advising her daughter on a break-up with her boyfriend, and a wayward brother suddenly reappearing at the doorstep seeking help.  We quickly begin making parallels to our own lives and become engulfed in the scene with little build-up or explanation needed.

Like in our own families, people not present play a big part in the current family issues presented.  As each conversation develops before us, important characters not seen emerge as core to the story.  Not getting to meet these important-to-the-situation folks (e.g., young son, divorced spouse, deceased loved ones, etc.) builds intrigue into what is the truth of what we are seeing.  Both those missing and those before us begin to take some blame for the current dilemmas.  In each situation, there is questioning and even new realization about possible, personal responsibility for the issue at hand.  But like in our real lives, these issues are not easily explained away or resolved.  Possible suggestions of resolution that do emerge soon fade away as tenuous at best as the scenes end.

From their own shadowed corners on stage, five actors watch each other take on the dozen, different family members of the five vignettes.  Cleverly and unobtrusively, director (and actor) Rik Lopes has members not in a present scene serve as prop masters, handing and taking back needed cups, coats, or whatever.  Scenes seamlessly move from one to the next as our time-sliced day progresses, each taking place in a setting highly recognizable to us all (the family dining table, a child’s elementary classroom, a table with a crossword puzzle).  But the familiar, even comfortable feel soon takes on a troubled look as family conflicts arise, and the half-lit cast members on the side remind us again that there are unseen family members who come in and out of these stories in very real ways.  Kudos to lighting designer Mike Riggs for the way he uses his skills to accentuate the themes emerging in this production.

As might be expected for a world premiere, the vignettes are not equally strong, either as written or presented.  Luckily, the five are sandwiched with two of the more powerful.  In the opening, Fennel Skellyman and Rik Lopes are excellent as a father and son having a pre-dawn discussion about the father’s increasing dementia and the effects of the son’s care-giving on both their lives.  Mr. Skellyman is particularly believable in his physical depicture of the father and in the way he is one moment very lucid and in the next clearly forgetful and out of reality’s reach.  The combined anguish and exasperation of the son portrayed by Mr. Lopes add up to a loving portrait that anyone with an aging parent can immediately and personally understand. 

The estranged-now-reunited brothers of the final vignette, Jack (Paul Rodrigues) and Danny (Rik Lopes) bring us moments that are both touching and terrifying.  In one minute we see a history of love and family as the brothers reminisce; in the next we see one clearly failed brother who is about to be turned once-again homeless by his successful sibling who is weighing making that decision as feels the piercing eyes of his near-by, pregnant wife. 

While moments of the other three vignettes sometimes do not seem quite as balanced and gripping as these two, all five overall work to convey their messages of the power of both past failings and future fears on present, family relationships.  The fact that these are all dilemmas with no evident solutions and that they are dilemmas that will continue to evolve with further issues for our five families is underscored by the ten-second last scene: a return to our first father-son story, one day later.  Time marches on.  Family issues remain constant and are to be tackled anew with each passing day.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


Moliere, Adapted by David Ball

A 350-year-old farce about blind, religious fanaticism and the corruption of religious leaders, Moliere’s Tartuffe is one of the those beloved, funny, and biting classics that most avid theatre-goers have seen at least once in their careers as audience members.  However, it is doubtful any of us has seen quite as dark, evil-lurking, yet still hilarious version as the adaption by David Ball now playing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre.  While slapstick, knee-slapping comedy moments emerge periodically, this dark Tartuffe quickly sheds its rhymed-couplet traditions to employ more modern-sounding dialogue to allow obvious parallels to drawn to 21st-Century Church scandals, local proclamations by Archbishops about so-called morality, and the logic-blind followers of conservative religion leaders all around the world.

A local patrician, Orgon, has had a Damascus-moment at his local church by witnessing the pious prayers of a stranger, Tartuffe -- so much so that Orgon invites him to live in his home, begins to place all Tartuffe’s wishes and comforts above those of his own family, and eventually deeds all his worldly goods and even his own daughter to this ‘holy man.’  Reasoned words of logic by his brother-in-law Cleante, pleas by his children and servants, and raised eyebrows and later laments and threats by his own wife only solidify the black-clad, never-smiling Orgon to become more adamant that his adored Tartuffe is the only worthy, honest person among his household. Everyone but Orgon, including us as audience, is well aware that Tartuffe is a slithering, smirking puppet master full of contempt for his benefactor and is orchestrating a full-take over of Orgon’s wealth and wife.  All of this takes place in the family’s lofty, cathedral-like residence (designed by Dominque Serrand and Tom Buderwitz) where religious music suddenly is heard from afar; where incense, prayer rugs, chalices, and crosses accompany Tartuffe’s daily moves; and where devilish priest-like attendants shadow ‘his excellency’s’ every turn. 

Stephen Epp’s Tartuffe is a villain worthy of any Shakespeare (or even Disney) tale who realizes everyone but Orgon knows his true intents and who openly flaunts his evil with his long, licking tongue on wine cup’s edge; his not-too-subtle touches on the master’s wife’s breast; and his mocking pantomimes of prayer and devotions.  As the overly adoring Orgon, Luverne Seifert swoons and weeps when near Tartuffe, but never sways from his stern, ‘I am right’ face of marble when with his family. 

So is there humor in this Moliere?  But of course there is, and never more so does comic relief emerge than in the outstanding performance of Suzanne Warmanen as the head servant Dorine.  She is the comic and honest counter to Mr. Epp’s Tartuffe as she constantly plots how to save her poor household from the inevitable demise.  She romps, rants, and literally rolls across the entire stage as she brazenly confronts her master and his stupidity.  Her manipulating the resolution of a lover’s quarrel between Orlon’s daughter Mariane (Lenne Klingaman) and her intended (Christopher Carley) becomes a triadic dance of hilarity as all three play the moment to the hilt.  Overall, her heart-felt and funny orchestrations to right all the wrongs around her are a perfect balance for those of Tartuffe as he determinedly ensures his evil intentions succeed on all counts.

Evil is eventually wrung out of the priestly robes of this almighty Tartuffe through a wife’s ingenuous plan and then through the higher, secular wisdom of an unseen ruler.  But even as this farce comes to an end, a final smirking glance at the audience by the now-prisoner Tartuffe and a closing barricading of the cathedral-like doors by this ravaged family leaves us with a sinking feeling that this is really not the end.  Ball’s adaptation clearly underscores that the Tartuffes in our world are as real and enduring as the 350-year-and-counting Tartuffe of Moliere.

Rating: 5 E s

Friday, March 20, 2015

"Jewels of Paris: A Revolutionary New Musical Review"

Jewels of Paris: A Revolutionary New Musical Review
Scrumbly Koldewyn (original music & lyrics); Rob Keefe & Martin Worman (additional lyrics); Keefe, Koldewyn, Alex Kinney & Andy Wenger (sketches)

Walking into the green, wooden Hypnodrome next to a Highway 80 overpass, audience members are greeted by variously clad and semi-clad characters with colorful, sparkling make-up and big, welcoming smiles.  Coming to see a Thrillpeddlers production is one of those only-in-San-Francisco experiences that actually has its roots in a small, Paris, France theatre of 1894.  Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol (the Theatre of the Big Puppet) was a theatre that specialized in naturalistic horror shows and remained open and in production of original plays until 1962.  Thrillpeddlers has continued that long tradition for the past twenty years by performing “authentic Grand Guignol horror plays, outrageous Theatre of the Ridiculous musicals, and spine-tingling, lights-out spook shows” (from the company’s website).  In 2009, Thrillpeddlers expanded their local fame and audience by reviving over the next half dozen years several of the original Cockette ( shows of the early 1970s (e.g., the multi-year-running Pearls over Shanghai). 

An original Cockette and still the keeper and reviver of their original scores and lyrics, Thrillpeddlars’ Scumbly Kolewyn creates many of the current troupe’s musical shows (including this world premiere) and is always the delightful, smiling piano player in the corner (sometimes in drag, sometimes not).  Jewels of Paris is described by the company as “inspired by the artistic revolution erupting in Paris nearly a century ago” and  as “a time-traveling, tuneful testament that revels in love, life, artistic, social, and sexual change.”

A description that lofty sets expectations high of seeing show that reflects a century of Paris’s endeavors.  In fact, the opening ensemble number (Everyone’s a Genius in Paree Today) introduces us to many of the famous and infamous of early 20th-Century Paris (reminiscent of the curtain-riser of Ragtime where we meet America’s luminaries of the same period).  The rousing foot-tapper, sung quite well by this cast of sixteen, raises our hopes for a fun evening as we watch Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Pierrot, Jospehine Baker, and others proclaim the wonderfulness of their beloved Paris.  What follows is a series of short skits and songs that provide glimpses into the often seedier but also artsy side of Paris.  Unfortunately, the journey is a bit up and down in terms of both quality of singing and comic appeal as the first half progresses.  Sketches often end with a pregnant pause before a polite applause, and some lines are just lost in the way delivered.  Too many soloists and back-up singers are not vocally or dance-wise ready to perform what has been cleverly created for them.  The one exception the first half is Roxanne Redmeat’s At the Sideshow, a real torch number about what it is like to live the life of what others describe as a ‘freak.’  The first half ends with another rambuctious, full-cast number C’est La Bouche where first-night over-singing by a few members lessened the overall effect.

As maybe the cast settled into the opening night, the second act faired much better musically.  Noah Haydon, a cross-dresser of somewhat indeterminate sex, steals the show and the night with his moving Singer in a Café.  His gorgeous baritone is a joy, and he performs without the wild hand and arm movements of some of his fellow actors in their moments in the spotlight.  On the more risqué side, Lisa McHenry brings the house down as Marie Antoinette (along with her three ladies-in-waiting) as she responds to the hungry masses of Paris, Let Them Eat Cock.  Her hunky, quite naked guardsmen follow with their own hilarious and totally X-rated Come Eat Me, Eat Me, Eat Me.  Paris’s history of torture as well as libertine sexuality is musically reveled (and graphically illustrated) as the Marquis de Sade (Andy Wenger) leads the troupe in L’Hotel Dungereaux -- the kind of kinky, full-exposed number that is a standard for Thrillpeddlers and is loved (and hooted at) by its very loyal audience.

Any evening at Thrillpeddlers is totally enhanced by its performers-turned-make-up artists (advised by Michael Soldier) and by creative, often elaborate costuming (designed by Tina Sogliuzzo and Birdie-Bob Watt).  Faces, lips, hair, and even eyes are full of color and glitz and are wild to behold.  Costumes are of the time (hooped skirts for can-cans, e.g.), change often, and then also come off frequently (since sans-costumes is very Thrillpeddler).  Coupled with the brightly painted floors and walls that remind one of French, artistic  trends, there is a lot to behold with the eyes.

In the end, the evening is quite a romp.  It could be much better if the skits were funnier and the cast more universally able to sing and dance as required by Kolewyn’s et al creation.  But, my guess is that before the run closes May 2, things will greatly improve to match past Thillpeddler performances I have seen.

Rating: 3 E

Monday, March 16, 2015

"Show People"

Show People
Paul Weitz

A play being acted for us that is also a play where our actors are actors acting for themselves.  Sound confusing?  Actually, in Paul Weitz’s well-crafted Show People, there is less confusion than fun for us as audience as the actors themselves become increasingly confused and perplexed in all their mixed-up roles of stage and reality.

As the play opens, a young entrepreneur has hired a former Broadway acting husband-and-wife team to become his parents for the weekend at his beachside, upscale home in order to help him convince his girlfriend to marry him.  The opening minutes are right out of a 50s sitcom, with more than a few complications still to come into this play within a play, meaning the fun for us as an audience has just begun.  What is an act and what is not, when the script is from their made-up play and when from the actors’ real lives becomes jumbled; and tensions, confusion, and even fear are not that far away from taking over the unfolding scenes.

Monica Cappuccini and Bill Davidovich are very convincing as the has-been acting couple who are financially desperate for this gig, no matter how bizarre it appears upfront or how much more so it gets.  Ms. Cappuccini’s Marnie is New-York cool and sophisticated and seems to have walked off a Neal Coward stage into this new scene.  Marnie turns it on ‘in role’ to be the loving mother and wife but also quickly and often returns to her more natural, long-term role as sardonic commentator of others’ faults.  Trying to keep his wife in the required role for the weekend, Mr. Davidovich is hilarious as the often over-dramatic and emotional Jerry, utilizing, for example, broad, out-stretched arms repeatedly to portray his ‘warmth of a father.’. His facial expressions are entire scripts onto themselves as he watches the play going on around him and reacts in what he believes is exactly what some invisible director is demanding.  As the younger couple, Tom and Natalie, Casey Robbins and Sara Morris certainly have their moments to shine and amuse.  Ms. Morris is convincing as the immature, wanna-be actress Natalie who, as it turns out, is also playing a surprise role during this crazy weekend.  Sometimes though, it is difficult to tell if some of her obvious shortcomings (like stumbled lines) as an actress are intended as part of her role in the play within our play or are authentically Ms. Morris’.  Mr. Robbins is also in real life an actor still young in his career, and his portrayal of Tom, who has set up this entire weekend play, is often just too overdone and certainly too over-shouted.  But his efforts are still often funny and certainly forgivable in this overall fun and funny ensemble.

Mr. Weitz has created what for any regular theatre-goer is the ultimate good time: A play about a play that is not supposed to be a play and about actors acting as if they are not actors even though most know the others really are actors.

Rating:  4 E’s


Beth Henley

Two women arrive at a remote rail station in 1860s Wyoming Territory, drawn there as mail-order brides to start lives anew in this wind-howling, big-sky frontier.  Upon meeting, they immediately become best friends, confidents, and sources of support -- not the typical beginning of most epics of the old West.  But Abundance, as told by Beth Henley (of Crimes in the Heart fame), does not follow normal script of such tales.  Yes, there are the fist-fights, drawn guns, scalped innocents, whisky-drinking, and even skirts rising above heads that we expect in our American westerns.  But in this telling, the struggles, triumphs, defeats, and resolutions of these two women, not the men around them, will define the heroism of the West.

Our brides Bess and Macon do meet their husbands-to-be, but all is not has been dreamed from the few letters that initially got them on the trains west.  They each begin their wedded lives treated more like indentured servants than partners in life.  Bess’s abusive husband is an angry, lazy, (but rather ruggedly handsome) ne’er-do-well who forbids her to sing.  While Macon’s fate is a bit better in that her husband does seek to please her with gifts, her disappointment in this older, one-eyed, farmer is difficult for her to hide when her wedding ring is his dead first wife’s and an anniversary card is signed as if from his favorite cow.  The few delights of these two wives come in simple things they do with each other: sharing stories, learning how to whistle, and enjoying the magic of the vast array of prairie stars at night.  As the years pass, calamities mount for both couples; and their lives become complicatedly entangled with a non-too-subtle affair, a kidnapping, and a dramatic shift in fortunes, resulting in the women’s own strong bond being tested.  Along the way, the men of their lives become meaningless characters in these two women’s stories.  Ms. Henley’s noble saga does become a tall-tale yarn at times, and even shares a bit too much with the exaggerated, ‘Oil-Can Harry’ melodrama stages.  But the nobility of story does remain among the more ridiculous:  the woman and her role in establishing roots in these forlorn plains.

On this particularly small stage in a theatre with obviously small budget, this epic is provided an authentic feel through a clever set by Steve Coleman.  His skeletal houses move and shake with the prairie winds and the actors’ fits and fights.  Coupled with costumes that feel right out of the ol’ West, the mood is believably set and ready for the cast to work its magic.  Each actor convinces us of the many strange nuances of each character, even to include the insertion of a glass eye.  But, to a person, each actor also too often over shouts his/her way through the script.  Given that the audience is only a few feet away, this over-projection does become tiring and distracting.

In the end, we are left with the two women once again alone under the great sky of Wyoming.  Much has happened to them in the twenty-five years since they met, lots of it not too happy; but it is the simple joy of a shared whistle that reminds them of the bits of joy they have shared and of the bond they still feel.  Yes, this is not your typical tale of the Old West; and we as audience leave glad to have seen another side of the story.

Rating: 3 E’s

"Breaking the Code"

Breaking the Code
Hugh Whitemore

With the recent Academy-nominated film The Imitation Game, the story of World War II Enigma code-breaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing is now much more widely known than when Hugh Whitemore’s 1986 Breaking the Code premiered.  His play, however, brings to the 2015 audience aspects of Turing’s life not told in the film and also feels more authentic and certainly intimate than does the film (and does not create the film’s fiction storylines like a supposed spy among the team of code-breakers).

Spanning his teenage years until his death in 1954, Breaking the Code jumps with ease back and forth through Turing’s life and helps us to get to know him in relation to several of the key players of his life:  his Mom Sara, his boyhood friend Christopher, his Enigma manager Dilly, his best girlfriend-for-life Pat, and the hook-up Ron who leads to his demise.  Mr. Whitemore also tells us the story of Alan Turing in settings outside the laboratory where he seems most comfortable in talking about himself.  We return with him several times to his boyhood home, his boarding school, and his house; and it is in these settings along with across the desk from his boss and friend Dilly where Whitemore allows Turing to share, even through strained moments of stuttering and long pauses, his dreams, his secrets, and his deeply held beliefs (whether about God, machines, or Dostoevsky).  What makes this play so wonderful is that the Einstein-brilliant, socially awkward Alan Turning emerges as a human being and not just as an historical figure.  We are never far away from his mathematical, scientific mind, given Jon Wai-keung Lowe’s effective and versatile set whose walls and doors are blackboards covered in formulas and complicated sketches.  But in this telling of his life, Whitemore emphasizes not so much the brain or discoveries of Turing but the heart and personality of this shy, sensitive, stubborn, and sometimes silly Alan.  More telling, he exposes in truthful, believable, and moving ways the gay life and struggles of this historic hero.

As Turing, John Fisher is totally believable for each of the ages and stages of this man’s life.  He is the fingernail-chewing, shuffling boy whose adoring looks and knee touches tell us of his love for his best school chum Christopher.  He is the shrugging, defiant son who in one scene is so exasperated with his mom and in another is totally devoted.  He adeptly handles the penitent and guilty, the suave and sexy, and the broken and desperate parts of his character.  Mr. Fisher rises over and again to make Alan Turning a person we walk away knowing and caring about.

The rest of this troupe is also well-cast and well-directed (by Mr. Fisher, by the way).  Two are of particular note.  Val Henderson plays Dillwyn (Dilly) Knox, Turing’s manager at the highly secretive Bletchly Park during the War.  His firm and official side is balanced by a fatherly and understanding side that seems just right for the nervous, slow-to-open-up Turing.  He is bookended neatly in his advice and worry about Alan with the same coming from Celia Maurice as Sara, Turing’s mother.  Her Sara Turing can scold and pick at her son’s irritating habits (no matter his age), but she can also soften in a blink to offer him genuine support, love, and guidance.  Everyone in the play has moments of hesitation and irritation with Turing that we as audience can understand; but each also shows in their eyes, voices, or casual touches/glances their varying attractions and sympathies that we too are feeling. 

The abrupt ending is reminiscent of a famous apple-biting scene from Alan Turing’s Disney favorite Snow White.  Unfortunately, compared to the genuine, believable story told up to that point, it comes off as too melodramatic and almost silly for the true, tragic climax of Turing’s life.

Rating: 4 E’s

Friday, March 13, 2015

"The Lake Effect"

The Lake Effect
Rajiv Joseph

As the lights go down and the scene on the stage illuminates, much has already happened involving the threesome we are soon to meet that they themselves do not totally know.  Just as the snow-covered ground outside the little Indian, family-owned café before us will get deeper as it snows vigorously for the play’s duration, mysteries will deepen and intrigue for them and us will increase in the next 90 minutes.

Thirty-six-year-old Vijay arrives after a 15-year absence in Cleveland at his father’s café (exceptionally designed by Wilson Chin in many wonderful details).  We enter the scene as the very handsome, sophisticated-looking son is alone in the café, looking in exasperation at his father’s in-the-red finances.  A similarly-aged, head-scarred African-American man congenially lumbers in and sits down at a table with a certain familiarity.  As awkward conversation turns into rapid-fire exchanges, Vijay begins to learn that Bernard is his dad’s (Vinnie’s) closest friend and knows many more things about his dad, his deceased mom, and his younger sister that he himself knows.  Most shockingly, he learns that Bernard has never heard Vinnie mention a son, that his non-sports-oriented dad is now an active (and wildly successful) football-pool better, and that Vijay is both his dad’s bookie and apparent “BFF.”  When the next scene opens three days later, the unseen Vinnie is now dead; the daughter/sister Priya has arrived from Florida; and a whole new set of secrets, surprises, and suspicions are aroused amongst and between brother, sister, and Bernard.  The snow gets deeper as does the conundrum of what is really going on among and between these three strangers and the now-dead Vinnie.

Adam Poss presents an uptight, yet poised Vijay who appears externally the epitome of success and togetherness but who slowly unveils much the opposite.  Joseph’s script provides Mr. Poss very little opportunity to reveal to us much about his motivations for a 15-year, family absence; what has led to his current, unhappy state; or his strong compulsion for brutal truth-telling no matter how hurtful.  Mr. Poss does little in his guarded portrayal to lift that scripted shroud, resulting in our never really getting to connect with Vijay on a human level.  On the other hand, we learn much about his sister from both her and Bernard.  Priya is an open book in both script and in the vivid, impulsive, and constantly active expression and movement that Nilanjana Bose brings to her.  We have some pretty good understanding as time goes on of who she is and how she got to be that way; but there are also some remaining unknowns of why she and her brother are such adversaries.

The key thread to hold our attention in this play is the character of Bernard and the particular portrait of him by Jason Bowen.  Mr. Bowen never misses a moment to draw empathy and liking from us as audience.  How can we not respond to his teddy-bear-like demeanor, his occasional lingering touch on that awful scar on his head, and his frequent smile that is quarter moon in size?  Plagued by increasing amnesia due to his head injury, Bernard has lost an anchor in his life when Vinnie dies.  As he tries to hang onto his inherent optimism, a secret about him is also unveiled – a big, awful thing that literally shakes his universe.  However, it his singular reaction to that earthquake moment that opens up the possibility for all three to begin letting go of their pasts and to move into a future where secrets, revealed or not, really do not matter.  Bernard opens a gate that suddenly invites a major breakthrough.  Mr. Bowen lets this happen naturally and believably, leading Vijay, Priya and us to follow him to a surprise resolution of these prickly pasts.

One more wonderful aspect of this play is how Mr. Joseph uses the unseen but very present characters of this play – Vinnie, his wife, and Bernard’s mother.  What those three took with them in death could in fact answer many of the questions and mysteries raised by their children, but those children and we come to realize, “Is that really important?”  The dead parents through Vinnie lead us (and maybe Vijay and Priya) to understand that hanging onto old tapes in our head and trying to make sense of them or letting them continue to rule our lives is like trying to keep a bit of last year’s snow in the freezer, hoping it will still taste good this year.  That snow will be as out-of-place the next summer as those old tapes in our head are in our present lives, and neither tasting the snow or listening over and again to the tapes will be pleasant.

Rating: 5 E’s

Sunday, March 8, 2015


William Shakespeare

What can make a much-known, often-seen classic like Hamlet worth visiting one more time?  Certainly, hearing the poetic majesty of familiar lines and witnessing yet again the young Hamlet struggle with his questions of life and death can be compelling reasons.  But added to that draw is seeing a production like Stanford’s where a talented, much-traveled director like Rob Melrose takes a young, mostly non-actor cast and shapes it into a riveting, close to word-and-action-perfect production.  While maybe not Oregon Shakespeare or Stratford-on-Avon quality, this group of would-be thespians has been instructed and shaped in the past two months by Melrose into a troupe that most theatres would be proud to present.  Every element of the staging and acting seems to have been the result of much study and discussion, resulting in a deep understanding of the Bard’s words, the historical context, and the power of living in the footsteps of one’s character. 

Each of the members of this large cast brings unique and nuanced interpretations to their familiar characters.  In the title role, Andre Walker Amarotico shows a wide range of all the emotions Shakespeare provides as possibilities in the words he gives Hamlet.  Mr. Amarotico does so with brash aplomb and full command of his own stage and seems both larger than life and yet totally vulnerable.  His moppy head, playful hops on stairs, and rides on banisters give him a boyish tone even as he turns a more and more sour, mad, and vengeful adult.  Many kudos also go to other key players.  Whether it is the mad, nightmarish rants of the crazed Ophelia (Jessica Waldman); the comical listing of fatherly admonishments by Tynan Challenor’s Polonius to his departing son Laertes; the high-society, stiff-necked airs of Kiki Bagger’s Queen Gerturde or her later anguished, guilty wails as she stands accused by her son of henious crimes, this cast generally rises well above its expected abilities on this university stage.

Where astounding direction comes particularly into play is the physicality of this production.  These young actors slap with hands, pound with fists, fall flat face, and sword fight with such force and vigor that even those of us only a few yards away could hardly believe we were seeing only staged versions rather than real acts.  The force of Shakespeare’s drama comes right at us as an audience through the audacity of action these actors bring to their parts.  The winners are we who get to witness a young group of aspiring actors take on the Bard with surprising maturity.

Rating: 4 E’s

"The Convert"

“The Convert”
Danai Gurira

When a three-hour production feels like a play half that length, it happens not by chance but as a direct result of plot intrigue, well-clipped direction, and masterful acting.  Jasson Minadakis directs Marin Theatre’s The Convert with both fervor and respect for its historically important subject:  the early clash of British colonialism, native traditions, and the Catholic Church in late 19th century Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).  Set in the office/home of a black, aspirant-to-be priest, the play’s action is so crisp, emotionally taut, and immediate-feeling that it almost feels this tale of history could be occurring today in an Africa still too often torn by warring factions and terrorist murders.

Jabari Brisport is Chilford, an English-educated, Catholic minister who aspires to raise himself and all his fellow townspeople from what he views as backward ways.  With a stiff-necked piety that still holds room for sincere caring to do and be good, he is horrified by those Africans who still walk around bare-chested and barefoot and who hold onto age-old beliefs like honoring ancestors as gods.  He is also determined to change their ways via the Cross.

A young native woman, Jekesai, arrives at Chilford’s doorstep frightened and desperate, being forced by her dead father’s brother to marry an old man in exchange for a goat.  In her, Chilford soon finds the true convert he has been seeking.  As played by Katherine Renee Turner and as renamed with the Christian name Ester, his protégé is to become prime evidence for his sought-after priesthood.  He proudly struts how she quickly learns the Queen’s tongue, becomes a devout Catholic, and begins to increase their flock as she evangelizes at the local market.  The fact that she calls him “Master” does not seem to bother either of them but does point to the fundamental flaw of his aspiration:  He wants to take the English model and superimpose it on his backward Africa, including its society of class distinctions.  While sincerely devoted to Jesus and Mary, Mr. Brisport’s Chilford has also become superiorly ‘white’ in his own breeding as he mimics the high-tea, hat-umbrella-tie-wearing English around him.  He rather pompously works to uproot the traditions of his past in hopes of making himself and those around him Christian and English.

Chilford’s close friend Chancellor (Jefferson Russell) is less interested in the white’s religion and more interested in how to attain the affluence and accruements of the English.  His fiancé, Prudence (Omoze Idehenre), has her eyes set on living the life of high society but is conflicted between letting go and hanging on to her African core.  Elizabeth Carter as Chilford’s wonderfully stoic and proud housekeeper Mai Tamba, satisfies the ‘Master’ with devout “Hail Mary, full of ghosts” chants while secretly still relying on ancient practices and incantations for sanctifying his abode. 

All these aspirations and internal conflicts are played out on the stage with one more character:  The never seen, but always-present English.   It is they who have shaped in 1896 an economy where more and more locals must work in backbreaking and low-paying mines instead of tending to crops and cows.  As uprisings grow bigger and closer to Chilford’s very ordered sanctuary, we as audience witness the mounting eruptions with our own growing apprehensions.  To Chilford, Ester, and Chancellor, the ordered, superior world of the English will prevail; and they believe they will be protected and rewarded by the English for their blind loyalty.  The former prediction will certainly be true for the English in Rhodesia, at least for the next eighty years.  The latter hope, we as audience begin to suspect will not bear true for these English-acting or any other Africans.

Telling little-known but important stories of history is one of the most powerful things live theatre can do.  The Convert excels in this mission and is well worth the investment it demands in time and in contemplative reflection.

Rating: 5 E’s

Friday, March 6, 2015

"How the World Began"

How the World Began
Catherine Trieshmann

Escaping personal issues in New York to come teach high school science in a small, tornado-devastated Kansas town, a pregnant, husbandless Susan comes hoping to renew her life and to help this traumatized community.  A flippant remark to a class of sophomores, describing theories of “spontaneous creation of the earth” as “gobbledygook,” sets off a new storm in this town.  The winds, both literal and figurative, increase as the play progresses due largely to the intense affront felt by Micah, a very intense, very conservatively religious, 16-year-old in her class who demands in his nervous but persistent way an apology for the quote he very carefully documents in his notebook.  As Susan first denies and then later tries to downplay her remark, Micah escalates his angry demands, wanting more and more public displays of contrition.  Attempting to intervene is his congenial, unofficial guardian, Gene, who enters with a lemon-meringue pie, and who alternates offering neighborly nice chitchat and advice with not-too-subtle veiled threats of possible consequences to her job if she does not appease Micah and the incensed town.

Ms. Trieshmann’s play certainly resonates today within our often-polarized society where ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are not always kept separate in the classroom in some communities.  However, what makes this production a real winner are the performances of the three principals as well as Leah Abrams’ tight, well-paced direction. 

Mary McGloin’s Susan is critical to making this play believable.  If she is too dismissive, too callous, or too self-righteous, this play becomes a fairly shallow treatment of a rather complex topic.  Instead, Ms. McGloin masterfully balances being stubborn in her and the science curriculum’s right to say what she has said with her genuine, patient (for a while, at least) attempts to understand Micah’s concerns and the firestorm that she has evidently lit within the community.  When she wakes to find a burning gorilla on a cross in her yard, Ms. McGloin’s reactions are visceral, human, and believable.  A later, climatic explosion of emotions and words are a bit over-the-top in the way played and directed; but for a person who is five months pregnant, facing alone an attack in a hostile, still-foreign-to-her environment, the extreme reaction we see is probably exactly the correct way to play the part.

Malcolm Rodgers as the folksy, go-between, retired guardian Gene also is also very believable in his portrayal.  He is likable by us as audience even as we often suspect his motives.  Who is really trying to help in this intervention?  Whose reputation is he most trying to save?  Mr. Rodgers keeps us guessing what is really going on inside him while also wanting to believe that his motives are genuine as he too is conflicted how to react to this teacher, to Micah, and to his ultra-conservative town.

The real star of this production is Tim Garcia.  From the moment he slouches into the classroom, he commands the stage and our attention.  His nervous twitches, taut face with never a smile on it, amazingly stressed hand movements, eyes one moment averting others and the next directly confronting with no fear, and his constant movement around the room in the way teenage boys can never be still: In these and so many other ways Mr. Garcia shows all signs of being a mature actor beyond his young age.  We as audience are both repulsed by his increasingly revengeful-sounding demands while at the same time are ready to step in and hug and comfort this kid who is evidently so traumatized and fearful from events that have transpired in his life long before this ‘gobbledygook’ remark. 

In the end, the performances of these three actors make Custom Made’s Bay Area introduction of Ms. Treischmann’s play an evening of intense, must-see theatre. 

Rating: 5 E

Thursday, March 5, 2015

"Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play"

Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play
Anne Washburn

Imagine a world where an unnamed epidemic has wiped out most of the population, where un-staffed nuclear plants have emitted their deadly powers in meltdown, and where desperate survivors roam the countryside looking for loved ones and defending themselves against roaming terrorists.  Thus is the big-picture setting for Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play.  The more immediate, opening set is a campfire where a few, just-met escapees of this nightmarish disaster are trying to remember line-for-line the Cape Fear episode of The Simpsons.  With a mixture of humor and pathos, our assembled group proceeds to recreate what for them is a familiar, not-too-distant story that helps both pass the time and to block out the horror (for the moment) of their collapsed and scary world.

The play proceed through two more scenes, one seven years later and one, seventy-five.  Telling, acting, and eventually singing this story of the Simpsons as well as other stories of that bygone era when TV reigned as the great stage for all to watch becomes a means of passion and vocation for our protagonists and their next generation.  Ms. Washburn explores our reliance on art to explain and expand our current lives using inspiring tales of heroic pasts, tales that we progressively know little about.  The play moves to a climatic ending (mirroring the ending of the now-forgotten movie at the core of its storyline) through an evolutionary telling through cartoon, TV, stage, and opera.  Our Homer of TV evolves to another Homer of old as people of the future seek to make sense of why their world is the way it is.

Staged as cartoon and moving eventually to Brecht-like opera with stops along the way in TV land and rock concert, the trouble with Mr. Burns is that it lumbers along rather laboriously and lingers too long in each of its settings.  Points get made rather effectively with the creative sets, the adequate acting, and the evolving-through-the-‘ages’ costumes (and even voices and looks) of the Springfield townspeople and of the Simpsons themselves.  However, rather than a 135+ minute play, this feels like it should have been a 75-minute or less production.  The second, seven-year-later scene especially goes into a long tangent where the survivors are trying to recreate TV commercials, adding a new theme and dimension that diminishes the power of the core Simpsons tale about Cape Fear.  And in the second-act opening, a rather bizarre opening musical number with all the more minor Simpsons characters on stage only adds complexity and non-needed storyline (and for non-Simpsons watchers, makes no sense).

Witnessing the evolution of this Simpson story through the ‘ages’ does allow many parallels to be drawn to our own grand operas/plays and their tragic stories of old and our proliferation of so many staged versions of Greek plays (told in so many varied ways that surely represent nothing of the original version).  But the time spent to do so, the humor that mostly only evokes weak bursts of audience laughter, and the lags in energy on stage just do not make this a show that I can heartily recommend, even though I wish I could.

Rating: 3 E’s

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"The Lyons"

The Lyons
Nicky Silver

And yet another family gathers on the current American stage either at the bedside of a dying relative or at their home mourning for a lost member.  In Nicky Silver’s The Lyons, a mother, a son, and a daughter enter the hospital room of their dying, cranky, even bitter-about-his-now-spent-life husband and father.  This is the family from hell where no paired relationship among them is without many barbs and arrows flung on a continual basis.  Dante’s hell is within this room; death for the father in fact may be the kind of escape they all are seeking in their own ways.  But amid all the cursing, revelations of deep and dark secrets, and missed attempts to reconcile past and current hurts among this terrible tribe is a play full of hilarity and laced with guffaw-producing one-liners.

The master of delivering these zingers is the matriarch Rita, so skillfully played by Ellen Ratner.  (This is the same role for which Linda Lavin was Tony-nominated in 2014 for Best Actress in a Play.)  Ms. Ratner does not leave a stone unturned as she employs every hand movement, fling of the head and hair, piercing look, dance-like movement, and voice intonation to command the stage and the moment.  This is a mother no one could want but also a person difficult not to fall in love with in the course of the play.  When she finally does create an escape for herself from this hellish family, the audience in fact roars its approval in applause and hurrahs.

The rest of this cast is quite well-suited to their roles, too.  Will Marchetti as the hospital-bed prone and dying Ben is grouchy from the get-go, using these last few hours on earth to bellow every curse word he has kept inside for all-so-many years and to lament what a wretched life and family he has endured (while lovingly remembering his own father dead half a lifetime ago).  Jessica Bates and Nicolas Pelczar bring their own worlds of bizarre, sad fantasies and failures in excellent portrayals of Lisa and Curtis.  They are two siblings who have difficult, actually impossible times remembering any happy moment from their childhood.  (Lisa’s one memory with her dad turns out to be a scene from a movie she once saw.)  Each as an adult has sought unsuccessfully through alcohol (Lisa) and fantasy boyfriends (Curtis) to craft some escape and happiness.

The snappy first half of the play in the hospital room takes a bizarre and puzzling diversion in the first scene of Act 2.  Curtis becomes a focus in a way that seems a bit odd and takes some of the wind out of the pace and energy.  Scene 2, now back in the hospital room, revives the tight-paced dialogue and rescues the audience’s attention.

What hits home in this well-written play is that people often endure lifelong, hellish relationships where there are felt obligations but no genuine love.  This endurance becomes a norm that is not questioned until some crisis (like a dying father) emerges.  Every relationship in this dark comedy is a soured one, even the ones with unseen spouses, supposed boyfriends, and attending nurse.  Only in final desperation after all past and present lies have burst before us does each surviving character finally find a way to escape the hell he or she has lived for a lifetime.  For each, the possibility of a genuine connection with another human suddenly emerges, even if it may last only for moments beyond the play’s end.  Each character takes a baby step to reach out to someone where relationship might be possible; and we as audience leave actually liking, even loving these four, growling Lyons.

Rating: 4 E’s