Monday, April 27, 2015

"Max Understood"

Max Understood
Nancy Carlin (Book & Lyrics); Michael Rasbury (Music & Lyrics)

The first two minutes of the new musical, Max Understood, are two of the most captivating minutes I have ever seen in live theatre.  Against a white wall on darkened stage with one spotlight on him, a small boy silently and erratically shakes, twists, smiles, and frowns.  Welcome to the world of a seven-year old with autism.  For the next 75 minutes, we will live in that world with Max (via the amazing performance of fifth-grader Jonah Broscow), seeing the people and colors and hearing the music, squeaks, and squawks as he does.  It will be an out-of-body experience for us as audience that is often difficult to make sense of but truly one never to forget.

After Max’s opening soliloquy of sorts, we are soon introduced to the daily challenges and frustrations of parents who desperately grasp at how to deal with a child who only likes waffles (and never pancakes), who watches and then quotes TV commercials incessantly (“Don’t just clean it, Oxyclean it”), and who repeatedly hits the button of recorded sounds and phrases on his plastic, press-and-play board.  But this same kid quotes to anyone who will listen minor facts about presidents, the importance of Einstein and relativity, and details about string theory.  Dad and Mom (Teddy Spencer and Elise Youssef) clearly both love their only child but are also tired, overwhelmed, and losing touch with their own realities and relationship.  Just getting to work or doing the laundry become almost too much for them.  As we watch them through Max’s eyes, they often become robot-like, stuck on repeated phrases and stilted movements, mirroring and echoing probably how they experience dealing with Max on a daily basis. 

Max meets during this ‘typical’ day three kids who initially taunt him for being different and ‘stupid’ (although he seems not to notice the razzing).  But in later encounters, each of these kids begins to find a way to bridge into the world of Max and show that they, too, are ‘different’ in their own ways, so different as actually to be similar to aspects of Max himself.  As overweight Peg, Hayley Lovgren is wonderful in finding her own child as she bounces and rolls around her ‘back yard’ with Max.  Jeremy Kahn as the gawky, curly-headed teenager (who may be somewhere on the autism range himself) engages with Max in some of the best moments of the entire production as they exchange facts about presidents and explore old books of poetry found at a dumpster.  The third teen, a punk girl named Fin (Alyssa Rhoney) takes the longest to warm up to this odd boy she keeps running into but clearly makes an impression on him as she becomes for him a mermaid who encourages him to relax and make a daring (but maybe not altogether smart) plunge.

Throughout Max’s day, we and he are surrounded by a collage of exaggerated sounds (effectively presented by The Norman Conquest).  We watch as his world swirls and twirls at angles via the tilted, rotating, hexagon stage (Alexander V. Nichols, designer).  We also must listen to songs (since this is musical), and it is this aspect of the storytelling where things often break down a bit.  Part of that is due to lyrics that sometime just do not say much or advance the story.  The music, when rapped, fits with the story but when more traditionally sung (especially by the three adults of varying voice abilities– Mom, Dad and a funky leaf-blowing gardener), leaves little lasting impression.  The bombastic explosions of sound and electronic music help us understand Max’s world.  The choice of expressing some of that world and other’s experiences in it through ballads or Broadway-like tunes works less well.

The strength of this premiere production is Max’s continually exposing us to what it is like both to be him and to see/hear those around him from his perspective.  The weakness is that we get confused when we are actually in his head and when we are experiencing the realities as seen by the others in his world.  That confusion may be intentional (after all, it must be bewildering for him and them, too); but it does make the experience less impactful than perhaps it could be as we are often left guessing from which angle we are seeing things.

As the sun sets on Max’s day (in a scene a bit too much like the ending of The Wizard of Oz), we along with his family reach an important conclusion after being with him during this ‘typical’ day: “This is normal.”  For us as audience, this is significant on many levels of understanding and empathizing with families living with autism.  For that reminder and for the privilege of being Max via the amazing Jonah Broscow, Max Understood is a very worthwhile sojourn.

Rating: 3 E

Sunday, April 26, 2015

"Death of a Salesman"

Death of a Salesman
Arthur Miller

Willie Loman.  Just the name conjures up many notions and images of past, great performances of what many believe is one of the greatest American dramas of the twentieth century.  How can yet one more production by a local company hope to compete with the giants of Broadway, TV, and film who have played this beaten-down salesman who believes until the end in the great American Dream?  San Jose’s The Stage provides the answer in its astoundingly powerful opening as we see trudging across a nighttime stage a slumping, slow-stepping man with long wrinkled coat, low-hung hat, and battered suitcases.  He battles silently his way with long shadows to an imaginary screen door.  He pauses for what seems like an eternity, clearly dreading entering what seems to be his suburban home (defined effectively by light, projections, and sparse properties).  We see a woman rising out of bed who seems to sense his return and looks worried, even scared.  All this occurs before we hear the first word; and already we know this production of Death of a Salesman is going to be emotional, powerful, and well-worth the next three-hour sojourn.

This is a story well-known by even the most casual of theatre-goers or students of American literature.  The forty-eight hours we witness are the climax of a lifetime of hopes built on family-shared fantasies; genuine hero-worship of parent, spouse and son; and belief that ‘who you know’ will always win out over ‘what you know.’  Ultimately, the glad-handing, braggadocio, ‘I cannot help but someday succeed’ frame of Willie’s dreams for himself and particularly for his favored son Biff come crashing down in avalanche proportions.  Mr. Miller, as we know, is shattering the widely touted belief of the late 1940s that anyone can make it in America if only enough hard work and belief in the justice of the system is applied.  Willie has clearly worked himself almost to the grave.  The furrows in Randall King’s face, the pain he shows in every step of Willie’s tired journey, and the gravel though which his voice emerges tell us this is a man who has given his all for a career as a traveling salesman in a company that will now turn its back on him.  We watch as he finally confronts the truth of so many lies he and his family have used in the past ‘just to get by’ and even at times to thrive.  Those lies come crashing down so quickly, so convincingly in this excellent rendition of Miller’s American classic.

Every member of this cast has been well-selected and expertly directed, from Randall King as Willie to the most minor of characters.  Lucinda Hitchcock Cone as the weary, loving wife and mother Linda commands huge stage presence just by her worried looks, her heartfelt touches, and certainly by her arresting diatribes against her two errant sons.  It is easy to believe that favorite son Biff in Danny Jones’ body was in fact in his teenage a jock and good ol’ buddy to; and it is also achingly easy to feel his young-adult desperation as he both tries to meet his father’s fanaticized image of him and to seek acknowledgment of who he really is at core.  The smaller, dandier son Happy comes alive with total believability in the hands of Jeffrey Brian Adams.  He is the jocular, conniving ladies man who loves his family, who strives to be noticed by parents who mostly opine about his brother, and who is so full of hot air that we expect him to float away at any minute.  Each supporting cast member also brings exactly the right tenor and poise as they all in their own ways strive to bring reality into this house of dreams without frame or foundation that Willie has built.  But the real kudos still must return to Randall King.  He is Willie.  Willie is this play’s Everyman.  He is the quintessential American salesman who every quarter knows beyond doubt that this time sales records will be broken, who spends more than is in his bank because outlooks are so sure for a banner year, and who is convinced that the loyalty of customers and colleagues through so many years of handshakes and cups of coffee will bring their just rewards.  Randall King shines as this Everyman.

Finally, the icing on the cake of this fine production goes to the Director Kenneth Kelleher and his supporting cast of designers.  Once the lights come up on Willie at the screen door, our attention is kept rapt for three hours.  The action on the concrete floor before us is kept close to the three- sided audience.  Lighting by Maurice Vercoutere quickly defines rooms, doors, pathways, and moods.  Creative use of broken pieces of a projected puzzle along with iconic symbols of a traveling salesman (like the front grill of his old car hung high above his bedroom) are used by Scenic Designer Giulio Cesare Perrone to set us in the proper time, place and 1940/50s atmosphere.  An ongoing soft soundtrack of period music is hardly noticeable and yet is powerful in its effect (Cliff Caruthers as Sound Designer and Composer).

The power of Mr. Kelleher’s production in toto is proven by an audience who leaves in hushed tones.  We all know that we have yet again witnessed a great American tragedy that still speaks today as loud, if not more loud than it did 55+ years ago.  The gaps between the worker and the power elite, the promised retirement package that fails to materialize, and the disillusionment that in fact anyone can climb that ladder to corporate fortune are still themes of daily lives and news analyses.  Willie Loman is still alive, is still struggling, and is everywhere among us.

Rating: 5 E

"The Star without a Name"

The Star without a Name
Translated & Adapted by Ana-Catrina Buchser from Mihail Sebastian’s
Steaua fara nume

In a small Romanian, 1942 town, life is as routine and predictable as the trains that daily speed by, only occasionally pausing just long enough to drop off passenger and package at its tiny, one-desk station.  On one otherwise normal evening, a beautiful, young woman in sheer-cut evening dress finds herself tossed off an express train for having no fare by an indignant conductor into the exasperated (but also excited) hands of the town’s four-eyed train master.  Unwilling to cooperate and provide any identification or explanation, the high-heeled, nameless starlet finds herself in this no-name town in the middle of forest and night with no money in her jeweled purse and quite ready to end it all sitting depressed on the train tracks (if only another train would come along now instead of hours from now).  Enter an equally young and handsome, school teacher of the nearby girl’s school who has come to retrieve a long-sought, rare book on astronomy delivered by an earlier train.  In seeing the mysterious girl’s desperation, he insists she spend the night (without him) in his house; and she reluctantly agrees.  Sprinkle in a few eccentric, stock-character townspeople who drop by the station amidst this unusual wrinkle in the nightly schedule of the town; and the First Act of the reportedly two-hour, fifteen-minute The Star without a Name ends in all of a half hour to the surprise of an audience who does not know whether to clap, shrug, or leave.

Much of the intermission becomes a show in itself as various actors and stagehands bring out boxes and boxes of books and create stacks whose jumble soon define the one-bed abode of our professor.  As Act Two gets underway, he and the still nameless and unexpected visitor trudge into his without water and electricity abode (after all, it is past 6 p.m. when the power station closes).  But what has up to this point seemed to be dialogue and action that lost something in Ana-Catrina Buchser’s newly translated adaptation of Romanian Mihail Sebastian’s 1942 original begins to transform into a magical evening between this odd-matched couple, both of ginger hair and increasingly aroused natures.  The attractively boyish, pleasantly awkward Professor (delightfully portrayed by Myles Rowland) is clearly both attracted to this nameless beauty now in his home and horrified each time she wanders over to his one, street-facing window that opens unto the small-town world of gossips and busy-bodies.  The Unknown (as listed in the program and played by the tall and distinct Marjorie Hazeltine) toys coyishly with the professor, soon finding herself engrossed both by his looks and his knowledge as a sort of tour-guide of the starry sky above them.  She uses her prowess (and her fear of the resident mouse) to persuade the professor indeed to spend the night in his home with her.  For that one night, these two happen-stance lovers escape their boxed-in lives to traverse together a stellar landscape, making new discoveries in the sky and in themselves.  Morning’s light will bring others bursting into their one-night sanctuary who will shatter their naïve, nascent plans of a relationship with the realities of their very different worlds.  But for those few minutes of the play and few hours of their co-existence, we and they find some joy and hope for their new beginnings.

Staging this new adaptation of an unknown-to-American-audiences play is a noble effort.  Translator, adapter, producer, and director Ana-Catrina Buchser is to be commended along with Dragon Productions for taking the risk.  Certainly at times it seems that some of the humor intended in the townspeople and some of the pace needed to keep the first act intact probably got lost in the translation process.  However, the casting of the two leads and the direction of their one night together result in an evening of melancholic satisfaction.

Rating:  3 E’s

"Let There Be Love"

Let There Be Love
Kwane Kwei-Armah

Seemingly unbridgeable gulfs exist aplenty in Kwane Kwei-Armah’s Let There Be Love.  Divisions due to race, age, sex, sex orientation, immigrant status, and class along with serious parent-child conflicts threaten at times to keep each of our three principles islands unto themselves and at other times to pit two against the third.  Stir into this mix a terminally ill senior man with an increasing death wish; a young immigrant woman being seriously abused by her boyfriend; and a 30-something daughter who is jobless, maybe homeless, and very bitter about how life (mostly her Dad) has treated her.  And yet, all these troubled ingredients somehow add up to a story that is often funny, totally engrossing, and very touching.

Alfred is a elderly, former Caribbean, now English gentleman who lives alone in a big house full of decades-old fixtures like knitted doilies, an afghan-covered sofa, a globe-opening bar of liquors, and a console stereo complete with albums from the ‘50s and ‘60s (all part of Daniel Ostling’s excellent set).  We learn quickly Alfred’s health is failing as we note the wheelchair in the corner, his bouts of coughing, and the constant rubbing of his chest.  We also quickly see how he and his daughter Gemma, who drops in to convince him to accept some home help, have a love/hate (with more emphasis on the latter) relationship.  He is upset she is not more successful and ambitious; she is just mad, mad, mad at him for a list of disappointments that have taken her a lifetime to accumulate.  Throughout most of the play, their interactions end with his demanding she leave after both of them have shouted and cursed themselves hoarse.

Entering this scene is Maria, a recent Polish immigrant who has been hired by Alfred’s two daughters (one of whom we never meet) to watch after him on a daily basis.  The former immigrant Alfred immediately rejects her and begins lashing out at how immigrants are now ruining his country.  (Sound familiar, America?)  But out of the blue, a peacemaker mediates and transforms their relationship into what will become a loving, mutually life-altering bond.  Nat King Cole himself is that intermediary whose lyrics and smooth tones rise from the stereo to connect their wide gulfs and even to inspire needed actions of dilemmas each faces.

While we were looking forward to seeing one of my favorite actors, Carl Lumbly, in the role of Alfred, we were actually very fortunate to experience the outstanding performance of Understudy Adrian Roberts (whom we immensely enjoyed a year ago as Dr. Martin Luther King in TheatreWorks’ The Mountaintop).  Never missing a beat and with a Caribbean/English accent that spoke with great authenticity, Mr. Roberts stepped into the role with great aplomb.  His creaky, cranky, cursing Alfred did not fool us or Gemma (the amazing Donnetta Lavina Grays) as we and she soon peeled back one by own his frowns and protestations to find a heart aching for love and attention, a man with generous spirit, and a man full of stories and wisdom.  Ms. Grays’ Gemma is a mixture of angel and fairy godmother who seems to know just what to do to make Alfred’s daily life easier and even joyous and how to heal in these last days his aching heart of past regrets and present disappointments.  When Gemma and Alfred are on the stage together, there is a magic that happens that was all the more wonderful the night of our performance in that it seemed that these two particular actors had been doing these parts together for weeks, rather than just performance or two.

As the daughter Maria, Greta Wohlrabe is also very convincing in her obstinate, persistent dislike of her father.  Bit by bit, we learn some of the whys and wherefores.  Ms. Wohlrabe displays less breadth of character development than the other two (who also have much more stage time together), and I found it difficult to believe her Maria would take so long to move an inch in closing the gap with her aging, obviously sick dad.  Her main mode of expressing herself is too often stomping, child-like fits.  When she does transform to an emotional state more expected of this sick man’s daughter, the lateness and abruptness of character switch is almost too much to believe.

A story that begins with so much clashing of what often appear as irresolvable differences in the end is really a story about love.  Love emerges in many forms and factors among both the seen and some key, unseen players.  The resolutions that occur have to be taken on faith, for we do not see their being played out.  It would be easy to be skeptical that so many years of built-up resentments could melt away so quickly, but then we come back to Gemma, our miracle worker.  For this play really to work, we must endow on her the same faith that Alfred and even eventually Maria do; and I for one was quite willing to do so.  Gemma totally convinces me that genuine love and care can work a miracle or two and can bring peace.  The final result for me:  a tear or two, a deep sigh, and a fulfilled night at the theatre.

Rating:  5 E’s

Monday, April 20, 2015

"Head of Passes"

Head of Passes
Tarell Alvin McCraney

Head of Passes is both the title of rising playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s newest play and the part of lower Louisiana where three passages of the Mississippi join in shifting swamps and sands into turbulent currents of the Gulf of Mexico.  It is in this sparsely populated, often stormy and flooded setting that we meet the gathering African-American Reynolds clan one rainy night as they come to surprise the aging matriarch, Shelah, on the eve of her birthday.  As each person arrives, the bantering, laughter, stories, and ribbing among family members, long-time friends and employees increase as do the roof leaks in the entry way and living room.  We as audience are quickly drawn into familiar-enough family frictions and fun; but we also soon learn that our stalwart, white-haired family anchor is seriously ill and is gearing herself up to confront her loved ones with the news and perhaps to pass on to her three children some words of legacy and advice.  We also sense that each of the children has his/her own agenda, too, that may or may not benefit the others.  As the storm’s fury increases and the buckets and towels begin to fail in their task of controlling the many leaks, the atmosphere among the family also gets a bit darker and ominous.  Long-held secrets are finding their way to the surface; long-time sibling tensions are once again erupting; and the electricity in the inside air is beginning to match that on the outside where wind and rain continue to roar.  Midnight birthday cake and candles are not the icing that can make everything sunny and happy.  The first act ends with the entire evening’s once-happy celebration and reunion literally come crashing down before us.

Cheryl Lynn Bruce’s Shelah commands both stage and story in compelling, biblical proportions.  We meet her as a woman of much faith who can be loving, pious, stubborn, spry, and demanding all in the same sentence.  As the evening progresses, we watch the years of ignoring sins and short-comings of those around her burrow into her face and weigh down her proud stature; and we hear in her increasingly labored breathing the disease she is suffering in her lungs and the dis-ease she is feeling in her heart.  This is a woman ready to meet her Maker, and she begins to see a beautiful, yet menacing Angel (played with majesty by Sullivan Jones) whom she wants to lead her ‘home.’  But we and she will learn that, like Job, it is not going to be an easy departure.  She and her steadfast faith are to be sorely tested.  Her Second Act monologue prayer turns into a mighty torrent of anger and on into a haunting ‘Why me?’ as she confronts her God of the disasters that have befallen her in this evening of shifting sands and rising waters.  The performance of Ms. Bruce is one that captivates and shakes us to the very core.

While the spotlight is always on Shelah, she is supported by an excellent ensemble where each member has moments to shine forth.  Francois Battiste is the fancy-dressed, smooth-talking, ego-centric son Aubrey who can bombastically explode in one moment as he tries to take command of mother and household and who will then in the next moment sink on his knees with head in his mother’s lap as the prodigal son who clearly just wants his mother to adore him most.  His brother, Spencer (Brian Tyree Henry) is quite the opposite as the over-sized, rather clumsy son who can also raise his voice in demands and claims but who will quickly slink into the background in both his mother’s and brother’s eyes.  The two of them have not-so-good feelings for their half-sister Cookie, played sleekly by Nikkole Salter as a hip, drug-leaning step-daughter who is here somewhat out of obligation and love but more so to get her due from a family she feels much abused by.  Lighter moments are provided by Shelah’s partying and often sacrilegious friend Mae (Kimberly Scott); by her giant and terribly funny house employee Creaker (whose movements by Michael A. Shepperd match his name); and by Creaker’s sweet son Crier (Jonathan Burke) who only wants to sing and impress with beautiful, mournful songs.  James Carpenter rounds out this stellar cast as the white Dr. Anderson who has long history, deep feelings, and some secrets of his own that are all entwined into this family. 

Equally starring in this production are G. W. Skip Mercier and Scott Zielinski as Scenic and Lighting Designers, respectively.  The once-inn, now family home takes on a life (and death) of its own that mirrors what is happening to Shelah and her family.  Its opening and inviting beauty splits and shatters in ways most memorable and shocking as the story and night progress.  The biblical-sized, rising tensions and woes are also reflected in the rising waters, so realistically presented in captivating lighting effects.

Tarell Alvin McCraney is truly one of America’s premier, young playwrights who has a knack for stories that shake our very core and ones that remain long in our memory and soul.  In the Bay Area, we recently reveled in his Brother/Sister trilogy that played in one year on three stages.  Later this spring, we will have a chance to immerse ourselves in the very moving, spirit-raising Choir Boy (not to be missed at Marin Theatre).  But for now, we are truly lucky to have his Head of Passes to jar our own senses of what faith means to us and how will we each react when ours is inevitably tested.

Rating: 5 E’s

Friday, April 17, 2015

"Nick & Nora"

Nick & Nora
Arthur Laurents, Book; Charles Strouse, Music; Richard Maltby, Jr., Lyrics

42nd Street Moon prides itself in making “great musicals sing again by finding (and often painstakingly restoring) ‘lost’ classics” -- or in the case of Nick and Nora, forgotten flops.  Based on Dashiell Hammett’s enormously successful 1934 Thin Man novel turned into movie, radio, and television hits, Nick and Nora was reconceived into a musical in 1991 by the Laurents et al team and looked initially to have all the elements for a sure Broadway success.  But that was not to be; and after the longest preview period (71) of any New York show until the recent 15-week-previewed Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, the show only lasted nine performances with no further curtain-raisings until this 2015 resurrection at 42nd Street.

The core story of Nick and Nora follows a formula known and expected by all murder mystery lovers.  Lorraine Bixby, a rather ditsy and jolly bookkeeper of a movie production company, is murdered by one of a host of possible suspects, all of whom we discover in Act One have personal motives for knocking her off.  One of the to-be suspects, a Hollywood starlet Tracy Gardner, is greatly annoyed that the musical that will surely win her a much-coveted Best Actress Oscar will now not happen because the famed director-to-be (Max Bernheim) has been arrested for the murder.  She seeks the help of her Fairmont College pal Nora Charles, who just happens to be married to the great, murder-solving sleuth, Nick Charles, in order to prove Max is innocent and to find the real killer.  (It is this married couple, Nick and Nora, who in the original 1934 film become iconic figures by the incomparable, sleekly beautiful William Powell and Myrna Loya.)  The mystery unraveling progresses intermingled with song, dance, stock characters of the ‘30s galore, and lots of dead-end and funny attempts to nail the true murder.  And of course the standard, Agatha Christie (and Angela Lansbury) moment arrives when all suspects are gathered together to allow the real murderer to emerge by a wonderfully planned ploy orchestrated by our Private Eye Duo.

Where this musical version of the famed Nick and Nora shines is when it sticks to the standard whodunit rhythm we are expecting from a murder mystery.  The suspects are very funny in their stereotyped ways, particularly when they all come together in song and dance for some wonderfully hilarious numbers.  In “Detectiveland,” each one’s motives are detailed before us with the sleuths scurrying around, well on their trails.  “Busy Night at Lorraine’s” reenacts how the victim’s apartment was like Grand Central Station the night of the murder with each suspect almost bumping into all the others in the comings and goings of that fateful evening – all outfited in what has been established as the dress of the perpetrator (trench coats with velvet collar and a hat).  At these moments, the musical totally entertains.  While not all the other solos, duets, and smaller ensembles always work as well in either music or lyrics, there are some outstandingly funny moments such as Allison Rich as Tracy singing “Everybody Wants to Do a Musical” and Megan Stetson as a Googie Gomez-like character (Rita Moreno in The Ritz) shaking her booty with her cha-cha boys (Juan and another Juan, played by Davern Wright and Justin Gillman).  (I did find myself squirming nervously in this latter trio’s portrayal of very exaggerated, cartoonish Latin characters and in Reuben Uy’s of a Japanese Yukido.  While the actors are in keeping with 1930s stereotypes, watching these types of treatments in 2015 feels a bit uncomfortable.)

Things do not work as well in the amount of time and attention paid to the starring detective pair, Nick and Nora.  Much of the book and some of the songs are dedicated to their marital bantering and quips as each coyly tries to one-up the other.  There are moments when we see strains in the relationship and are even led down a false alley to believe there might be trouble in paradise.  While Ryan Drummond and Brittany Danielle are very convincing in these roles, their relationship adds time and slows the pace too much in this 2-hour, 45-minute journey.  Between the time allotted for them to jockey back and forth in song and words and the time to meet all the many suspects, Act One particularly bogs down and becomes a bit wearisome.  By Act Two, the pace and energy really picks up as the unraveling and possible scenario reenactments of the mystery take full stage with false clues further emerging of who the killer might really be.

As Lorraine, Nicole Frydman is a particular joy to watch.  She replays her death over and over again with aplomb (including falling repeatedly into a dead heap) and causes chuckles every time she wanders on stage to help the telling of everyone’s versions of what happened, when.  All the other cast members do a good-to-great job in playing the expected stock characters necessary for a good, old-fashioned murder.  Their un-miked voices ring out in varying degrees of success in the musical numbers, with Allison Rich standing out among the cast in her strong renderings whenever the actress Tracy steps forward to sing.  The soft, sweet voice of Brittany Danielle (Nora) unfortunately often does not match the stronger-voiced Ryan Drummond (Nick) in their duets, and I found her lyrics often difficult to understand.  A mike would have solved that issue but would run against 42nd Street Moon’s desire to provide the modern audience the rare chance to hear a musical truly live -- and not through big speakers.

There are many clues within this production of why the original musical did not last long and has not been produced since.  That said, kudos and applause must be given our treasured 42nd Street Moon for providing us a chance to witness this often-funny, yes-too-long revival of a truly lost musical.

Rating:  3 E’s

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

"In a Word"

In a Word
Lauren Yee

Words and the memories they struggle to recall piece themselves together like puzzles with missing and/or wrong pieces in Lauren Yee’s In a Word.  Guy, a husband, struggles to persuade his wife Fiona to go out for her birthday celebration dinner.  She stubbornly resists, rooting herself in tangled and tortured memories involving their son, whose second-year anniversary of a still-unsolved disappearance at the age of eight corresponds with this, her birthday.  Their often-frustrating, real-time battle of words is continuously interrupted by their internal playbacks of past conversations and events related to the son, his disappearance, and the 2-year investigation. 

We enter the muddled world of their mind’s eyes through many short scenes played out before us with the help of a third actor, Greg Ayers, who takes on multiple characters of their dreamed scenes.  He comes and goes and often just watches from the sides, filling out the casts of their memories by becoming the missing boy, the principal of his school, the detective searching for him, or a number of other players on their minds’ stages.   What is real and what is not becomes confusing for us (and clearly for Fiona) as we try to figure out when are we in the now and when in the past and what in the past is actually recalled accurately.  Scattered props like kid’s toys may be in the room before us or may only be in the mother’s recall.  Sounds, visitors, a tree in the front yard may or may not be real.  Words increasingly cannot be relied on to describe inner pictures of what happened or what is happening now.  They morph mid-dialogue (“leave of absence” becomes “leaf of absence” becomes “abstinence”) or are entirely missing as Fiona continuously refuses to talk to her pleading husband about what is really going on inside her head. 

Fiona’s and Guy’s words are failing to answer what happened to their son, what is going on now inside them, and what is increasingly wrong with their marriage.  The words said and perhaps some not yet said are deeply rooted in Fiona’s mind and create a reality only she seems to know.  We see their power in a front-yard, gnarled, almost ghostly tree (which is maybe real, maybe not) whose leaves are random words and blanks ready to be filled in.

Giovanna Sardelli aptly creates an air of mounting tension and mystery as she directs the cast of three.  The multiple scenes and even scenes within scenes (as memories push their way into reality) transition without pause and at times in near crazed, frenetic pace that suggest racing thoughts.  When we first meet Jessica Bates as Fiona, her eyes are already red and swollen from much crying; and real tears continue to flow freely throughout her powerful portrayal of this mother who alternates between blank, silent stares and emotional outbursts.  Through his multiple personages, Greg Ayers skillfully becomes her haunting memories, taking on sometimes-exaggerated forms as she remembers events and people in ways that fit her present reality and story.  In expressing Fiona’s thoughts, his to-date, unsuccessful detective is right out of a bad TV series, a “B” version of Columbo; his principal (Fiona’s former boss who puts her on leave) is a bit too prissy and increasingly unfeeling; his Tristan is just too docile and perfect to match the ADHD boy we learn he actually was.  Mr. Ayers masterfully switches to take us also into Guy’s head where his tantrums of the ADHD Tristan or his beer-guzzling bravado of Guy’s best friend (“You just gotta do this” type of advice) give us a glimpse of the father’s own internal conversations with himself.  As Guy, Cassidy Brown is appropriately sympathetic to and exasperated by his wife’s paralyzing sorrow.  Mr. Brown seems to give us our one hold on realism; and yet we cannot be sure if he too is creating a mental storyline that interprets the past in ways to help meet his own needs.  Together, cast and director weave an intriguing ‘what can we believe’ ‘where is he,’ ‘who did it’ mystery.

The rolling, world premiere of In a Word will makes its way to three more cities, during which time Ms. Yee will probably continue to tighten and shape what is already a compelling ninety minutes.  There are elements that are not clear to me why they need to be brought to bear so often (like repeated obsession with the adopted Tristan’s birth mother and her story).  The symbol of the tree pops up in somewhat weird ways in various forms, disrupting my own train of thought as I tried to figure out ‘now what does that mean?’  But, these are only minor diversions in what is a gut-wrenching portrayal of what of the difficulty to face, accept, let go, and move on from life’s inevitable disappointments and tragedies. 

Rating: 4 E’s

Friday, April 10, 2015

"Stupid F**cking Bird"

Stupid F**cking Bird
Aaron Posner
San Francisco Playhouse

Prior to seeing Aaron Posner’s Stupid F**cking Bird, I revisited Chekhov’s The Seagull and surprisingly found myself wanting to laugh at the extreme melancholy, quickness of each character to cry over any available disappointment, and the seriousness and weight given to most every interaction.  While most translations and productions of Chekhov do not lead to laughter, Mr. Posner has taken the classic story and characters, updated them to today, and helped us close the gap from strictly serious to often hilarious.  The storylines of the modern adaptation and the original are similar as various love-sick characters seek fulfillment from those not interested in them, as wanna-be’s try to act as if they are really important, and as natural relationships (like mother and son) are anything but normal.  But in this version, Mr. Posner pushes each scene and character just a bit beyond the line that Chekhov has drawn as the limit of expression; and the result is melancholy, exasperation, and desperation that we can both relate to and laugh at. 

As the family and friends before us stumble through deep questions like ‘What is love?’, ‘Am I lovable?’,  and ‘Is life even worth the effort?’, we as audience are forced to join in their search for answers as the fourth wall is broken with requests, even demands, that we provide input and advice.  The boundaries between written dialogue and real-time conversation are blurred, and we all become a part of a parody called everyday life that is being played out before us.  What is even more fun is that the most mundane of answers from audience members are the ones latched onto by the stage as “Yes, that is the answer.”  (For example, when the love-sick Con is seeking advice how to win the reluctant Nina, some audience members offer serious-sounding, well-meaning advice while one says, “Buy her a present.”  It is the latter that he walks off supposedly resolved to do.)  The play we are both watching and are in beautifully toys with our tendency as humans to make mountains out of molehills; to focus on our own individual situations as the be-all, end-all; and to jump at any possible self-help suggestion that comes along as the possible, final cure-all.

As the play continues, Mr. Posner seems to be adding to his parody and the fun by evoking prime examples of the theatre of the absurd.  Our characters spend lots of time in conversations that go nowhere (“Waiting for Godot”) and appear to be resigned to and trapped in their life patterns and journeys (“No Exit”), eventually giving in to less-than-aspired hopes or at least shrugging shoulders as to say, “So maybe this is as good as it can get.”  We and they begin to have glimpses that there are ironies, miscues, and unresolved dilemmas in everyday life that maybe we can learn to accept and then just move on in our own imperfections.  The alternative, as we learn from the suicide-contemplating Con, is not so good.  The beauty of this adaption is that we get permission to laugh at our own screwed-up, everyday, ‘all-important’ lives rather than just contemplate how bad they really often are (as in Chekhov).

To a person, this is a fine enough cast, and they act well together as an ensemble.  Bill English’s set, as always, is inventive, flexible, and appropriately suggestive of a modern American version of that Russian, country setting of Seagull.  Susi Damilano’s direction suggests both the deliberate, contemplative pace of the Chekhov original while also flipping at times to the frenetics of people on the edge of making themselves crazy in their frustrated pursuits of love, fulfillment, and meaning to life.  It does feel that the second half of the play begins to circle on itself a bit too much and a quicker exit would make the play stronger.  That is probably more due to the writer than the director.

And then there is a bird (and it is indeed a seagull).  Its metaphorical place in Chekhov is given an even more central role in Posner’s play.  The seagull becomes the reason given for making a tough, life decision.  While absurd, it is probably very real that we all sometimes act in much the same f**king ways as players on the stage as we look for ways to explain to ourselves and others why we do what we do during this journey of life.

Rating: 4 E’s

Thursday, April 9, 2015

"Fire on the Mountain"

Fire on the Mountain
Randal Myler & Dan Wheetman

With relatively few spoken words but instead with three dozen songs and several score of projected, vintage photographs, Fire on the Mountain tells a moving, powerful story of the Appalachian coal miner.  The might of the media used in this timeline history that covers much of the twentieth century is felt in every minute of the ninety as large black-and-white, Dorthea-Lange-like images illustrate the lyrics being belted across the stage.  We see in the faces, mountain scenes, and blaring headlines what we are also feeling in the bluegrass tunes that find roots in Celtic, country, gospel, early American, and spiritual music.  These are songs and melodies with beats and notes that grab and do not let go.  We experience viscerally what it must have meant to live to the mines six days a week before dawn until after sunset, to breathe and cough (and then die from) the black dust, to stand in water all day, or to be a young teen who grows into a prematurely old man wedded to the mines for life. 

The photographs and the music are enhanced and brought to life by a cast of nine that looks and acts in every moment like they are of the poor, close-knit mining community.  We see in their eyes, their wrinkled faces, their gingham dresses and worn-out overalls, and their often-labored steps lives full of hard work and struggle but also of dignity and devotion to friends and family.  The knowing smiles, the intense listening and nodding, the sighs and shrugs of background cast members watching others who are singing a song are as much of the telling of this story as those in the spotlight of the moment.  Kudos to Leslie Martinson for her casting brilliance, to Jill Bowers for such authentic yet simple costuming, and especially to Joe Ragey for a multi-level set that evokes outside a mining shaft, inside a shanty home, and the heart of the community in its meeting hall/church.  And the excellent, tightly paced but never rushed direction of co-creator Randal Myler is what holds everything together.

The music certainly reigns and stimulates not only much audience emotion but also plentiful toe-tapping and even humming along.  Each ensemble member is outstanding, with many both singing and playing an instrument native to these mountain and mining parts.  Particularly stunning in authenticity of sound, look, and manner is Molly Andrews, herself a daughter of coal miners and a direct Mayflower descendent.  All that history contributes to her soul-touching songs of the heart, delivered with head raised, closed eyes, and hands tightly clasped at her breast.  There is nothing acted here.  It feels and looks like we are there with her in West Virginia, Kentucky or Pennsylvania. 

Equally powerful is the singing, string playing, and dancing of Tony Marcus and of David Lutken.  Harvy Blanks teaches us by his presence on the stage and by his deeply moving songs rooted in Southern African American history that mining communities were integrated and that inside the mine, all skin was the same darkness.  All other singers and musicians step forward to moments of excellence as they portray wives, miners, a son, and community members.

This is a history of heroes and villains as told by Messrs. Myler and Wheetman.  Clearly, the heroes are the folks themselves, the men of mines and the women around them, who courageously keep moving forward in a life most of us could not fathom.  Union organizers and strikers for health and safety purposes are given their due.  The beautiful mountains, the wildlife, and the sense of real community and caring all also shine throughout.  The big villains are the coal companies and their executives.  One picture tells it all.  A miner’s monthly pay stub details not only his meager overall salary but also how most of what was earned went back to the mining company itself in the company-owned town (for rent, medical, food, utilities, etc.).  Any improvements to life, health, and safety are hard-fought through the decades; protests are usually met by armed guards and scab miners.  The ultimate tragedy is seen in images and heard in mournful tunes as the coal companies rape and level the beautiful mountains in their final acts of strip mining.  As mines shut permanently, communities are left still poor but now also terribly ugly and polluted.

While many of us may already know much of this story through past, newspaper headlines of our earlier lives, to see the history march across the stage in sight and sound from beginning to end (much like a life Ken Burns documentary) leaves impressions that will long be remembered.  Once again, live theatre accomplishes what no other media can do in quite the same way in telling a story that we all really need to hear.

Rating: 5 E's